This world. This place. This life.


The Church of Vitamix

willa likes itA few weeks ago a new Vitamix (well, refurbished) arrived here via UPS. I bought it primarily to make baby food for our Willa, who’s just starting on solids.

It’s amazing. A different class than any other blending appliance I have.

I wish every baby-food-making parent could have one. But they’re expensive (my refurbished one was more than $400).

And that’s where the idea came from. What if a church bought one, and invited new parents to prep their food there? As a stand-alone mission—or as part of a larger ministry to parents of infants?

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Change agent, know thyself

About ten days ago, Peter Bowden of the UU Growth Blog created a Facebook Group called the UU Growth Lab.  It’s an understatement to say that the group has grown rapidly:  today there are 279 members, and several spin-off groups. Connecting with that many people passionate about the growth of Unitarian Universalism has been incredibly energizing.

There’s a wide range of interests represented among the group’s members, and it’s pushed me to think about who I am as a change agent–and who I’m not.

Here’s the work my gifts and passions equip me for:  I like rebuilding and regrowing dispirited groups, helping each member discover who they are, and what they like to do; I also love making connections between people and groups, creating overlapping networks of creativity.

There are among the UU Growth Lab members people whose gifts and passions equip them to be congregation planters.  Because of the way my history and temperament combine, I know that creating a congregation ex nihilo really isn’t my thing.   But I’m glad it’s theirs.

So what about you?  What are your gifts?  What are your passions?  What amazing work are you uniquely equipped to accomplish?


Emerging Congregationalism

Freedom in community requires the power of organization and the organization of power.  —James Luther Adams

For the first twenty years of my life, I lived among the Plymouth Brethren.  The tiny assembly my family attended was part of the Tunbridge-Wells splinter of the highly-schismatic larger movement.  The TW assemblies were part of the Closed Brethren:  only those “in fellowship” with the TW branch of the Brethren were welcome at the Lord’s Table; and decisions made by any individual assembly were binding on all the other assemblies within the TW Brethren.

They had neither the power of organization nor the organization of power. Instead, power surged through charismatic individuals, or was clutched, scepter-liked, in the hands of dynastic families.  They believed that Truth could and must be found and defended, and division was better than compromise.

As I entered young adulthood, these forces fractured the TW Brethren.  My mother is one of seven children, and the fault line ran right through her family, dividing sibling from sibling.  In some families, the division meant a complete cut-off–no conversation, no visits, no meals together.   Even now I can still feel the pain and anxiety this schism caused.

It makes sense that my next move was to the Presbyterians.  After all that chaos, “decently and in order” sounded wonderful.   For a while I thrived within a system that revised its Book of Order each year.  I understood in my bones what my polity instructor at Princeton said about the Book of Order:   “There’s blood on every page.”  Each of those rules was the community’s best judgement about how to resolve conflict and avoid schism.

But I came to the Presbyterians at a time when the denomination was deeply divided about ordaining LGBT ministers and elders.  As I listened to the debate, I wondered if the denomination had not yet healed from the process of opening ordination to women.  In a series of steps, the PC(USA) had moved from not just allowing the ordination of women to all offices within the church, but mandating the ordination of women.  Any ministerial candidate who refused to accept the ordination of women would not be ordained.  Churches had to interview both women and men in their ministerial search, or the presbytery would not validate the call.  The presbytery also monitored church sessions and boards of deacons, making sure that women and men were equally represented.

In conversations about the ordination of LGBT people, I heard this underneath the words of its opponents:  “They’re going to make us have a gay minister (just like they made us have a woman minister).”

When I finally admitted to myself that I was one of those gay ministers that everyone was so scared of, I began looking at the UCC as a possible place of ministry, and part of that exploration was a UCC history and polity class.

I took the class in 2003–between the release of The Two Towers and The Return of the King. As I read the course materials and participated in class, I kept hearing in my mind, “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”  I began to understand that imposed conformity creates resistance.  Congregational polity offered a different approach.

After joining the Anchorage UU Fellowship and becoming increasingly involved in leadership, I learned about the shadow side of congregational polity.  Too often, the theme song of congregational polity was You Don’t Own Me.  To use a more current reference, we were like South Park’s Eric Cartman, demanding, “Respect my authoritah!” and declaring, “I do what I want!

In the last few months, however, as I’ve worked through the UU history readings, I’ve come to a deeper understanding of the logic of congregational polity.  It’s not just about avoiding tyranny by keeping the locus of authority in the congregation, rather than ceding it to a bishop, or to a presbytery.

It’s about community, emerging in a particular place, with particular members, choosing its own covenant.  In the words of the Cambridge Platform, “Ephesus is not Smyrna, nor Pergamos Thyratira.”  Anchorage is not Fairbanks, nor Sitka Juneau.  Anchorage in 2011 is not Anchorage in 1991.  As members come and go, as the conditions around us change, we renew our covenant with each other, again and again.

Congregational polity is an organic, sustainable way of organizing power.  The structures we create are for this time and place.  We create them, understanding that before long, we’ll need to tear them down and start again.  We reduce, reuse, renew and recycle.  We travel light and leave no trace.  When we use the power of organization, when we organize our power, we’re not building monuments and edifices.  We’re growing people who participate in the world’s transformation.

The universe is a funny place.  Just as I was about to publish this love letter to congregational polity, I found this:  Institutional Fluidity.  From a Presby.  Go figure.


Finding “Bright Galaxy”

One of our assignments for UU History class was to prepare a class presentation about our home congregation’s history.  I chose to look at the Anchorage UU Fellowship’s history through the lens of its origins in the Fellowship Movement.

I had previously read two UU World articles about TFM earlier.  The story of the Boulder Fellowship’s beginnings still rings in my ears (“You’ll have to do it yourself.”)

As I returned to those articles, I noticed a reference to Bright Galaxy, a book about TFM published in 1960.  Intrigued, I tried to track it down online.  No luck.

Meanwhile, my interest in TFM was growing.  A tiny spark was becoming a flame, and conversations during my first two days at Meadville last week fanned the fire.

Then last Tuesday the Meadville students hosted a pizza party at the historic Meadville-Lombard building that was recently sold to the University of Chicago.

Curious, I took a self-directed tour.  In the library I found a small bookshelf, piled high and overflowing with stacks of books.  Above it a sign said, “Free Books.”  (ML is paring down in preparation for its move.)

Sitting on top, right at eye level, was Bright Galaxy.

In the months leading up to this class, I’d planned to write my final paper on pluralism, trying to answer for myself the question of how this tradition, with its Christian origins, had become the theologically diverse faith it is today.

Finding Bright Galaxy, and continuing conversations with my classmates, changed that plan.  Now I’m writing about the Fellowship Movement–what was hoped for, what went wrong, what we can learn from the experience.

On the plane home from Chicago, Bright Galaxy was my companion.  Somewhere over Alberta I read that Laile Bartlett, the author, considered the Plymouth Brethren to be one of the spiritual forbears of the Fellowship Movement.  I spent the first 20 years of my life among the Plymouth Brethren.

There is a deep satisfaction when life folds over on itself, and the past is suddenly useful.

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A place to call home

We’re home again, finally, and we’re not going anywhere for a while.  It feels good to sleep in our own bed, without significant travel looming over us.

We had a wonderful time in San Francisco.  We ventured into the brave new world (for us) of dim sum at Yank Sing.  We loved Muir Woods, Crissy Field, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Stinson Beach.  We bought all kinds of fun things in Haight-Ashbury.  We decided that we would never again rent a car without hand controls; it’s not a good idea to set out on an adventure with the better driver relegated to the passenger seat.

Of course, for me the best part of our trip was taking the concrete step forward from aspirant status to candidacy.  In their letter granting candidacy, the RSCC wrote, “You have made meaning out of the trauma and losses in your personal and professional life.  You bring the gifts of your religious past to your present religious home, which we anticipate will benefit our denomination.”

I found these two sentences both deeply moving and oddly humbling.

In the RSCC interview, like the one with the MFC, the person being interviewed is asked to provide a “first question.”   As someone transferring from another denomination, and as someone with a winding religious path, I chose the question, “Why the UUA?”

My answers all revolved around the idea of “home.”  My initial experience of UUism as a big enough home, one that allows enough room for growth and change.  The mission I see for the UUA, its responsibility to offer a home for the spiritually homeless (the “unaffiliated“).  A place that helps us be the change we want to see in the world.   A place to practice pluralism.  Fertile ground for the non-theistic mysticism springing to life within me.

Home.  Place.  Ground.

I’m home again, finally, and I don’t plan to go anywhere that takes me from this spacious home.