Thursday, June 29, 2006

Comments, We Get Comments!!

My Darling Powder Pigeons!

Let me say how wonderful it's been to see the dozens upon dozens of comments on everything from LORD to fashion bloopers to tapas to the letter I got off-line from a recent seminary graduate who used the f-word several times in her emphatic response to my posting on God language. Whoo, girl! I hear you! Now cool down or you'll never get through July!
I appreciate my colleague from the South who wrote to inform me that I have been misspelling "YA'LL!" It's Y'ALL!" I think!
(Did I get that right, finally?)

Someone asked me what my favorite tapas was. Chalice Chick was my dinner date -- she let me be the boy and order for both of us (Oh, stop. I KNOW it's a vile gender stereotype; it just happens to be one that I particularly like) and she'll have to add her 2 cents' worth here. I loved the gooey manchego cheese and beef thing. I also loved the oysters. I loved the mojitos and the CUBAN FRIES and ... everything. It was a fabulous, fabulous meal.

One more word about the LORD, you big huge bunch of brainiacs.
I forgot to tell you that one of my favorite expressions is "Lord have mercy." It used to be kind of a hipster ironic thing I said, but it grew on me. I say it a lot now and I really mean it.

I was very touched by what Jamie wrote here:
in response to my saying that I hurt "almost all the time" in UU settings.

I want to say that I don't hurt in my own church. Hardly ever. I think it's actually fascinating that no matter how often I say that, people jump to that conclusion. I am left to conclude that my readers would rather keep assuming that I'm frustrated within my parish than to hear what I'm really saying out of my experience with UUs in seven states and dozens of congregations, eight General Assemblies and countless district gatherings. Someone said he thought it sounded like my congregation was "mostly supportive." Not mostly, honey, 100%. I know I brag on my church too much, but there's good reason.

I hurt because of the way we hear each other's stories in the wider movement. I hurt because we've been encouraged, nay, trained, to hear someone's deep truth and respond with our critical analysis of that truth rather than just with "thank you."
I hurt not so much for me as for all of us: for the missed opportunities for ministry, for the intimacies that don't occur, for the companionable silences we often don't make space for, for the gracious receiving of someone else's spiritual experience. Perhaps Small Group Ministries are fostering a better sense of hospitality among us. I hope so. But all too often, when one of us says, "I have found that I deeply believe in God" or "I have reached a transcendent state of peace," UUs hearing them are likely to jump in with something like, "Oh. Well, here's why I don't believe in God" or "Here's why your choice of language feels abusive to me" or "What's transcendence and how can you be sure you've achieved it?" or "I don't think human nature really lends itself to peace, but hey, best of luck with that."

Where did we pick up these lousy habits??

Let's take a look at sermon "talk-backs," long popular among us:

A preacher deeply and prayerfully considers a topic, researches it, crafts it carefully so that it will minister to his people, and he gives it from the pulpit on a Sunday morning. What took him two weeks to think about, days to live with in his mind and twelve to fifteen hours to research and compose is heard in 20 minutes. Instead of receiving the sermon as a gift of the ministry, folks are led to believe they're hearing a lecture to which they have every right to respond. Therefore, they listen to the sermon not in the spirit of reception and appreciation, but in a critical manner, taking notes on their programs and pouncing on weak points so they can highlight their deficiencies in the "talk-back" (what a hostile term in the first place!). Their off-the-cuff, immediate reactions to what was said (or their reactions to what they thought was said) are considered worthy enought to include within the worship service. Voila: the lifting up of unconsidered, immediate opinion as liturgically appropriate, i.e., deserving of congregational consideration within the sacred space of worship.

In the Puritan era, "talk-backs" followed a sermon that was based exclusively on the Scriptures. Therefore, talk-backs provided the people an opportunity to disagree or to gently challenge the minister on his or her interpretation of the Word. The difference between the Puritan and the contemporary talk-back is that, in the 17th century, while the pastor was meditating on the meaning of a biblical text within the context of his time and place, so were his church members meditating on the same text at the same time and place. In other words, reactions and opinions were grounded in common spiritual practices, learning and reflection.

I use this illustration to highlight how what was once a practice of mutual discernment degenerated to a free-form carnival of opinions, in an era where everyone is free to ground themselves in whatever religious truths they feel drawn to, and where everyone feels equally free to critique one another's truths from the comfort of their own perspective. I don't think there's much health or care in this approach.

Yes, I do have some ideas for how this might be improved ;-)
I am a big fan of Bible study, book groups that focus on religious works that feature a variety of perspectives, and thematic, inter-generational religious education themes that an entire congregation can undertake over a year's time together.
I believe that whoever touted Bible study as a great way to "survive" in the Bible belt, i.e., to gather spiritual ammunition of a sort against our ideological foes, is only partly right. I advocate studying the Bible because it's epic and crazy and gorgeous and the cornerstone of tons of Western art and literature, and because it belongs to us as UUs, dagnabit.

Let me ask you all this:

I grew up UU, as you know, and as a young adult I became very interested in spiritual disciplines and practices that would actually transform my inner life in some significant way. My first successful attempt at spiritual discipline occurred for me in college, when I set about changing my heart and mind in order to win liberation from the demon Jealousy. It took me two years of arduous spiritual work, but I conquered that demon through a combination of psychological study, Christian prayer and Wiccan ritual. Out of the desperation of my miserable soul, I created this hodgepodge of spiritual aid. Were there Unitarian Universalist spiritual practices I should have known about?

What I'm wondering is, since I now undertake most of my spiritual discipline within a Christian context (with much support from Tibetan Buddhism and other sources), I would like to know what you consider UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST spiritual practice.

In other words, what are your specifically UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST spiritual practices that aren't learned or borrowed directly from "other" traditions? Assuming that UUism isn't just a happy smorgasboard of Everything (and I don't think that it is), what spiritual practices and disciplines would you say are distinctly ours? Which UU practices and disciplines do you use?


Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

What I'm hearing you say is that UUs like to pick debates with people, particularly as they pertain to Christianity. Is this correct?

I definitely feel some advantage in my Muslim background. I can write pretty much whatever I want about Islam - including criticisms - with very little questioning by UUs. There are likely several reasons for this, but I suspect the main is that most folks are unfamiliar with Islamic concepts and practices, and don't want to reveal what they do not know.

UUs have so much experience with and/or knowledge of Christianity that they often feel qualified to respond. Sometimes they want to show off what they know, too. I see a lot of this.

I think it's cool that you like the word Lord. I have a wooden plaque on my workdesk that reads, "The Lord is My Shepherd; I shall not want." I am not a Christian, but I really like the sentiment. I like it so much that I bought the plaque for a friend's wedding gift some four years ago but never gave it to her. All these years I've kept it in my drawer all this time and would only pull it out to look at it from time to time. The words really speak to me. Recently I changed desks and I put it out on the desk. I wanted to see it every day as a reminder to myself. It doesn't matter to me at all what anyone thinks of it. They might be confused by the quotes from Corinthians and Machiavelli on my computer, too. It doesn't matter what people think.

As UUs we like to talk about why we like this and that - why we do this and that. Is it any wonder people expect us to explain ourselves all the time?

I've never attended a talkback but I did not expect that it would be the negative experience you described. I always wanted to go to a talkback so that I could learn more about the minister's sources and what led them to write what they wrote. Also, having interaction with other congregants who were also trying to find ways to implement the minister's teachings. But it sounds like you are saying talk backs have been treated as opportunities for people to argue with the minister.

More and more in the last week I am beginning to think that Roger's radical revisioning of the church service set up (he comments on my post on UU Cadence) is more of what we need in our congregations. Maybe if people didn't walk into what looked, smelled, and sounded like a church they would not bring all their church baggage with them. They would really experience it as something new; something they could learn from more than they needed to question.

I get the feeling sometimes that you are writing about a general lack of respect among UUs for their ministers. Am I imagining this? I may write a post about this later, but for the moment I am considering all the ministers I know, and all the UUs I know, and trying to discern if there is a trend.

Blogger Chalicechick said...

For me, much of UUism has been about taking control, accepting that my fate is in my hands and that no God will give me what I haven't worked for. My problems are my own to solve.

On the broader scale, humanity's problems are humanity's to solve.
As much as the political aspects of this idea make me crazy, I've never seen a church so committed to humanity helping itself.

Also, one of the bits of Good News UUism has is that we're all in this together. I learn so much from my fellow UUs. Indeed, the "Lord" conversation alone has bourne fascinating fruit that is really making me think about some things.

UUism gives us constant reminders of our own control and grants us no permission not to run our own lives. UUism gives us each other, and permission to speak frankly about what troubles our souls and try to figure things out together. It's not a very original idea to say that reason is our sacrament, but I do tend to believe it. And the process of refining belief through reason feels all the more holy to me when it is a bunch of us trying to figure something out together.

But when we're out of control, and when we're alone, there's still something else. I'll teach you the one phrase that got me through some of the suckiest times I've ever had.

One evening, very depressed, I talked to my favorite UU minister and she said it to me, and I've never forgetten it. I've parroted it back to her occaisionally. I've taught it to worried friends. I've repeated it to myself on countless occaisions, sometimes in a parody of a mantra, other times in serious emotional distress.

Ok, get ready...

"Things will get better, then they'll get worse again. That's life."

The thought of the natural rhythms of things, the understanding that good things and bad things come and that our jobs as people are to deal with them and keep on working for the highest and best.

Lots of churches send cash to third world countries. My church buys them tractors and fishing boats. UUs, at our best, seem to work very hard to keep perspective. I value that quality very much in people and in my faith.

We've established as recently as Wednesday that what resonates with you doesn't really resonate with me. I assume the reverse is true, so I don't know that viewing humans as humanity's hope, the ritual of refining belief through reason or constantly looking to keep a greater perspective even when life sucks count for you.

But I consider them very UU practices and have gained a lot through them.


Ps. My memories of sermon talkback differ from yours because much of my faith was formed in a church that no longer exists, at least not physically, asking questions of a minister who would gently explain how to look at concepts like "the soul" in ways totally foreign to my ex-Protestant self. I know it's not always, or even usually like that, but for me it was salvific.

Blogger Jaume said...

Mojitos?? Cuban Fries??? Wow, tapas can get really international in a US setting. Being just a Spaniard who has always felt comfortable with our humble, limited way of approaching the subject, I may consider open my mind and whatever else is needed to be open, in truly UU fashion, to try something else on top of my bread.

Blogger SC Universalist said...

I dont see how I missed seeing you spell "ya'll" incorrectly (unless it's because I cant spell anything correctly). Just remember that it short for "You All" (and is plural everywhere except Missouri). And dont worry, come down south and you'll get yourself a fan! Should I mention an UU Church that still has little fans next to the Hymnals?

My talk-back experinces havent been like yours - thank goodness. Although I can certainly see how it could go that way...

As to "UU Spirtual Practice" unique to UUism - I dunno. I find myself looking mostly at what works for me. Dont most relgious traditions have prayer of a type? Isnt the 1920s anthem " Everyday and everyway, Im getting better and better" a prayer?

Although I guess my main UU
spritual Practice is reading, although I guess other religions might do that too...

and CC might be interest to know that I got the same message she got from her UU Minister by reading! In this case a 1500s Spanish Play - an thinking "Man, their life seems as bad as mine - I guess things havent changed too much in 500 years, has it? why should I expect to be different than anyone else?") - note: yes this means I was living in the previous century - I am that old! yes, we can find insight in many ways....

Blogger boyinthebands said...

It has been just over twenty years since I first attended and joined a Unitarian Universalist church and from where I sit the talkback culture has changed. Two main reasons, I think. First, back in the 90s -- after the ministers' mailing lists started -- I recall a bunch of ministers agreeing to supply pulpits on the condition that there was no talkback. Preaching is very draining, and I for one am not keen for another hour of clergy-baiting. And, two, the clergy-baiting generation seems to be passing from the earth, so where talkbacks persist, they have to be less of an assault.

Some time, per SC Univ., I'll have to go into the correct usage of y'all, you'uns, and all-y'all.

Blogger CK said...

Peacebang, I asked my covenant group that same question a few weeks ago, after we'd had a very good talk about our Source or Ground (god-talk...for some). Then I tried to figure out where that came from within Unitarian Universalism.

Blank stares, uncomfortable pause.

Bottom line--I bring to Unitarian Universalism. When we have our time of prayer/silence, I pay attention to my breath, try to bring what I've learned in meditation. When our pastor speaks, I listen (and pay attention to my breath sometimes, too!) and try to translate it into action. I'll admit I do my share of criticism--having spent time in a seminary doesn't help, I think, but part of it is my nature.

But I cannot identify any spiritual discipline that is uniquely UU. Perhaps that's my fault, or the lack of RE in my church.

A friend of mine is struggling with religion--her girlfriend's parents both died recently, and she's struggling, too. I sent her the sermon from Gail, which she read and loved. But when I tried to invite her (you know, "see you next week") she said she didn't want a religious education class, she wanted religious experience.

Sigh. Not sure how to respond, since the 'experience' I have each week comes primarily out of my own effort and weekly discipline. Maybe that's the way it is--and should be. Maybe not. Certainly religious experiences aren't handed out on a platter (even in religions with the 'trappings'--incense, crosses & gold), but oughtn't a church be at least conducive to that spirit?

Blogger powderblue said...

It’s painful to read in 2006 a religious leader’s words that she “loved the gooey machego cheese and beef thing.” In this era of the internet it's easy to learn the price of suffering it takes to create delicacies like that one, if one cares to look.

I know – no one is forcing me to read UU blogs. I guess enjoying them is one of my yields to temptation. In my defense, I have no way of knowing how much distress it takes to write with such coherence and wit.

PB may be interested in the discussions of Christian Vegetarian Association members at She may relate to the feelings of isolation these Christians often feel within their own churches, and pick up some tips for pleasurable AND compassionate eating, too.

Here’s a message posted there yesterday:

“I'm sure that many of us could relate to ‘I thought for so long that I was nuts or over sensitive or just had too much empathy for my own good.’ It's so great to have found a community like the CVA. I am, like so many others, more than ready for Jesus to come back and put an end to all suffering. My hope is that with time, most of churchgoers will embrace a compassionate and loving lifestyle, one consistent with our faith and Jesus’ teachings. I already see a glimpse of this, in the CVA growth, pastors speaking up on behalf of animals, theologians raising awareness, philosophers, etc. The vegetarian "movement" is gaining momentum and that can only mean good news for all creation and more glory to God.”


Blogger PeaceBang said...

Hafidha, this is not correct and thanks for asking. Sure, UUs like to debate. But what I am saying is that UUs feel invited to respond from a critical place FIRST when hearing someone else's faith convictions. It is not hospitable, and it presumes an intimacy that doesn't exist. It doesn't create a strong community when we feel entitled to jump right from hearing someone's "This is what I affirm" to "Oh, how interesting. Let me now explain to you why I think you're wrong, and what I affirm instead."

I'm also not making any broad statements about disrespect of ministers. My illustration about talk-backs was to highlight the difference between reflecting together in a shared way on a source of religious meaning vs. coming into the boxing ring from different corners, ready to swing it out for the sake of a good semantic debate that often leaves people's most tender feelings and intutions smashed on the ground of intellectual gamemanship.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

CC, having lived as a UU all my life, I can't imagine having a religious life that is centered on anything BUT those things you highlight as central to your own belief.
I appreciate your articulating them, because I tend to take them for granted. They've just always been there.

Blogger Chalicechick said...

Those things were a little bit true with the liberal Presbyterians, more so than they would have been other places, but not nearly the focus that they are with us.

Of course, there were lots things that were taken for granted with the Presbys. I do miss terribly the focus on taking care of the poor that the presbys I grew up with have, though the Faithful Fools are probably right to point out that taking care isn't the whole answer.

Still, my mother's life's work is low-income housing, mostly because she percieves that Jesus told her to. (Not literally.) And there's something awesome about that, something I didn't really appreciate until I left the Presbys and joined someplace else.


Blogger kj_zoheret said...

My spiritual practice includes the use of prayer beads. I grew up Jewish, but I fell in love with prayer beads as an adult. Several years later, I attempted to introduce the concept to the UU congregation I had newly joined.

Prayer beads seem to me to be a perfect fit with UUism. They can be purchased or made by hand out of many materials. They can be used for prayer, or simply held in the hands during meditation.

I designed a set of beads in quartz crystal and colorful glass. I felt it should be simple and elegant, comfortable in the hand, large enough to afford a decent period of reflection for people who pray one bead at a time, but small enough to be inviting to novices and children. I made a three-panel leaflet summarizing the many religious traditions incorporating prayer beads, and offering usage suggestions for theist and non-theist UUs.

I put the beads and the leaflets out on a table during an evening event at the church. I got a VERY wide range of responses. Many people were good-naturedly curious, and stood at the table long enough to scan the leaflet -- but didn't take a copy. Many never got past the word "prayer" in the leaflet's title. They either glazed over or huffed off. Some were openly contemptuous and shockingly hostile.

One gentleman returned to the table several times. He read the entire leaflet on the spot, then carefully folded a copy into his jacket pocket. He picked up the beads, put them down, walked away, came back, picked them up again, left, returned, and did this for two hours.

The experience, on the whole, was quite harrowing for me, and I haven't tried it again, but I still think UUs of all stripes could benefit from incorporating beads into their practice.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

KJ, I'm so sorry for that harrowing experience. I really am. Your beads sound lovely. I had a beautiful set of jade beads for awhile, and an Anglican book of prayers to work but the beads broke! You've reminded me that I would like to look into prayer beads again. Thanks for posting.

Blogger CK said...

I second the prayer beads--we have Tibetan sandalwood beads which I use sometimes in meditation.

Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

Thanks for the clarification, Peacebang. The minister question was not specific to that one post, but to just your posts in general, and it's something I'd been wondering about for months, so I'm glad you were able to answer that for me.

I'm sorry these discussions have brought you down. I've felt pukey and discouraged on occasions after discussions of race in UUism, and in those instances I tend to withdraw and do other things. Hopefully you will, to quote Nietzsche, "become bright again."

Also, I will try much harder to offer less critique and think more with my heart when others are sharing their spiritual practices.

Blogger Jamie Goodwin said...

Thanks for the mention! I am glad you liked what I had to say.

A few monthes ago a seminarian at my church persented a sermon, and it'scentral theme has resonated with a lot of people about what our UU spiritual practice (at least for Sunday mornings) should be.

Show up, Listen, Respond with Love..

Blogger Clyde Grubbs said...

In Texas y'all is singular and something like ya'alls is plural.

So called Talk Back is easier for some clergy than others, I sort of enjoy it. Ten years of leading history classes using the socratic method can teach one to see the spirited discussion about a topic a creative interchange.

But it is always bad for the congregation. It keeps them small, inner oriented, clubby. Worship is not a class room.


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