Hair on Fire

Here’s a familiar set of problems in a different setting:

Religion and Ethics Newsweekly (PBS)

Watch Decline of Buddhism in Thailand on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

I visited Thailand in 1997, in the middle of the period discussed in that story. I find myself wondering about aspects of Thai culture not explored in it – norms of behavior related to showing respect or status, attitudes toward the body and touch – that were noticeable contrasts to American norms. How has prosperity affected those?

Even more, I find myself marveling at how similar are the challenges to traditional religion there and here.

The Buddha said, “We ought to practice as if our hair was on fire.” Fire was a symbol closely connected with the goal of religious practice: “the name for the goal of Buddhist practice, nibbana (nirvana), literally means the extinguishing of a fire … Apparently, all Indians at the time saw burning fire as agitated, dependent, and trapped, both clinging and being stuck to its fuel as it burned. To ignite a fire, one had to “seize” it. When fire let go of its fuel, it was “freed,” released from its agitation, dependence, and entrapment —calm and unconfined.” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “On Translation: Nirvana”)

Do tongues of fire set our hair on fire? If so, what do we do about that? More to ponder for those of us longing to reclaim or re-imagine our religious heritage.

Tongues of Fire

I believe that faith is a way of moving and being in the world, not a set of beliefs. But beliefs matter, because they frame our understanding of the good we aspire toward and support our commitments. Does our tradition offer a framework for understanding the world, ourselves and our aspirations, and guidance toward an ideal of how to move and be in the world?

In a series of essays (see links below), the Rev. Tom Schade argues that “we need to really, actually and truly shift from belief to practice as the core of what the spiritual life asks of us … imagine our spiritual work as learning new habits of the heart, learning to practice the virtues of openness, solidarity, self-possession, reverence, gratitude and generosity, honesty and humility in our daily lives … being witnesses to each other’s efforts, and catching each other when we fail and fall … worship as a public ritual of self-reflection and re-dedication offered to one and all in the hopes of changing people’s lives … to build up the wider community … We need to move from membership growth to virtue-oriented evangelism.”

He says:

“Imagine a public voice, clear and strong and present, that speaks always for holding the Earth and all her peoples with reverence, as due the body and images of God. Imagine a public voice that counsels openness and curiosity for the “other”, a voice that reminds each of us that all our views are partial and incomplete, and that the truth really matters. Imagine an always-audible voice that whispers privately to every individual that they have a right to be their true selves, to think what they think, to love who they love, to be who they know themselves to be. Imagine a public voice that insists that we live amidst actual abundance of all we need most.

We could be that voice. We say those things now inside our walls to each other and to our children. We need to imagine ourselves turned inside out, telling the same things to the world.”

Schade describes his journey toward these conclusions as taking place within a UU Christian context:

“I became uncomfortable with the way that UU Christians had dichotomized the situation within the UU movement: a dominant humanist hegemony that placed all its eggs in the basket of ‘religious community’ and a suppressed theistic and Christian past and future that called UUism into a more purposeful religious life.”

A profound spiritual awakening in which Schade participated shaped UU Christians’ perception of things:

“[T]he first Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship Revival in New Orleans in 1999 … made space for a kind of Christian piety, new to UUism. The new UU Christian piety did not try to stay separate from popular Christian piety, but embraced it. … [W]e also embraced our fallen-ness, and our need to be healed and transformed and changed, and our dependence on a power greater than ourselves to save us and the world. … [T]his new UU Christian piety … was a submerged and repressed part of [UUism]. … It’s the kind of church that we wished our churches were now, but too many other UU’s were so allergic to Christianity and any form of ‘God language’ to let us. … But I have come to think that it is not the answer to the self-satisfaction of contemporary UUism.”

To frame our understanding of the good we aspire toward and our commitments, Schade offers a way of looking at the Christian message that transcends the established Christian tradition:

“Sacrificial violence, the killing of the scapegoat, produces myths, or more bluntly, lies. A story must be told that justifies the violence of the many against the one. … The heart of the gospel is [that] humanity has a capacity for sacrificial violence, but has learned to recognize it and to reject the myth it creates. … Jesus says in the gospel of John that when He has gone, He will send a Holy Spirit who will be the Advocate and the Defender. The Advocate of whom? The Defender of whom? The innocent victims of our human scapegoating. … Such a Holy Spirit is not confined to the church, nor to the believers, but is everywhere at work.”

Looking at the Christian message through this lens, Schade says: “It was no longer so clear that mainstream UU’s had abandoned the gospel to which the UU Christians had remained loyal. … Perhaps the gospel had broken free of the religion built to contain it, and was free in the world, moving anyone who could see it.”

This insight offers the UU Christian perspective a new question: “How does Unitarian Universalism, with its reflexive antipathy to conventional Christianity, fit into a world like that?”

Working toward an answer, Schade addresses the question, “what do we mean when we say ‘God’?”

“In the stories and myths that the ancients told, the Gods, including Yahweh, once walked upon the Earth and related directly with human beings. … It’s a lovely image, but we can tell that the authors … did not believe it to be literally true. … [Later t]he Kingdom of Judah is defeated by Babylon … God begins his journey. God is delocalized. God no longer lives in the Temple on Mount Zion, but God is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. God is able to be with the Hebrews in Babylon. God is also back in Jerusalem, waiting for them to return. God is in the wilderness making a path for them through the desert. God is ‘out there’ and wherever we go, we are still in relationship with God. … Jesus … is resurrecting understandings of God that had not been heard since the time of exile, hundreds of years before. … The kingdom of God is at hand, and within you. ‘Our father, who art in heaven…’ – you can directly address a prayer to God. … And then … the Holy Spirit, tongues of fire, at the Pentecost, inspires the faithful and establishes God’s presence on Earth … dispersed into humanity, as an internal spirit carried within. An inner light.”

Schade offers a reading of the Bible as a whole: “God starts out in story as present as God’s self on Earth – walking in the Garden in the cool of the day – and over time becomes the cosmic, omnipotent, remote, unapproachable God of everything and all, to whom we owe sacrifice. Then in an opposite motion, God comes to earth as a man, and dies and is resurrected as a people who are filled with his spirit.” In a way, this reading recapitulates the Exodus story: what went into Egypt were patriarchs who wrestled with religious practices that involved idols (household gods, heaps of witness, the like); what came out of Egypt was the people with whom a non-anthropomorphic god was present (“Emmanuel”) and interacted. The significant shift in the gospel is the spirit carried within.

From it also flows a new view of secular society: “The secular society is the fulfillment of the western religious tradition. Free people, who carry God in their hearts, doing good works, united by a spirit. When people say that they are ‘spiritual but not religious’, they are living out one strain of Biblical theology.”

If individualism, diversity and democracy are our present-day Unitarian Universalist household gods and heaps of witness, these idols represent the understanding of God as the spirit within coming into its own as a cultural and political force. I grew up in a Presbyterian church where it was asserted that democracy was rooted in Christian teaching. One wouldn’t know that from studying Calvin, but Schade offers a perspective on what “God” means that makes sense of it.

Beliefs matter, because they frame our understanding of the good we aspire toward and our commitments. One might reframe – and thus re-energize – the Christian message, or one might attempt to include it in a secular framework (as, for instance, Nicholas Wade does in his book The Faith Instinct). Different beliefs can support the same commitments. Like the spirit, beliefs – and aspirations and commitments – dwell within us. The Pentecost story offers us an image for what happens when we bring forth what is within us: tongues of fire. And the chalice offers us an image of the fire held safely (which the use of sterno either contradicts or intensifies, depending on your sensitivities). In a faith where belief in God is optional, we still need a command – and not a fear – of God-talk.

The Rev. George Kimmich Beach has said that Pentecost is our truest myth. I think we should remember the response of the woman whom Wolf Blitzer asked, “Do you thank the Lord?”:

“We are here, and you know, I don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord.”

Across our different ways of framing our faith, Schade says we share “a call to develop the virtues of liberality as the operating orientations of our characters.” In other words, to live as a developed, mature love demands.

Tom Schade, Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, part 1
Tom Schade, Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, part 2
Tom Schade, Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, part 3
Tom Schade, Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, part 4
Tom Schade, Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, part 5

SERMON: “The Dance of Wisdom”

A couple of weeks ago I returned for the first time to lead a religious service at the congregation I last served – three years ago now – as their full-time minister. It was a memorial service, and the family requested that the service include a chalice lighting. I decided to use the chalice lighting words that I most often used when I served there, words that are tailored to that place. Beside their pulpit is a table where they place their chalice between two tall candles. The candles represent the core values of our faith, love and justice. And the ritual there is to take a taper, and light it first from the love candle, then unite the flame of the taper with the flame of the justice candle, and then to light the chalice. The words I inherited from their tradition went something like: “From the fires of love and justice, we kindle the flame of faith.” I wanted a little more story to it, so I composed this alternative:

Each morning the earth awaits the light of your love and thanks you.
Each day the world awaits the light of your conscience and calls you.
From these lights we kindle the flame of faith.

I stole the first line of that from an inscription in the garden of the Franciscan retreat center on the California coast where the study group I belong to meets. The center is on a hilltop, and part of the garden follows a ridge of the hill out to a point with a splendid view of the Pacific. At this bend of the coast, the Pacific is to the south, so that from the point you can watch the sun either rising or setting over the adjacent hills. There at the end of the point is a short pillar with a colorful ceramic tile inlay that says, “Each morning the earth awaits the light of your love and thanks you.” I thought that was perfect for the love candle on the congregation’s altar. I thought about the justice candle, and the emphasis in our tradition on conscience as the fountain of justice, conscience as the means by which we register justice in our hearts, and I composed the second line parallel to the first: “Each day the world awaits the light of your conscience and calls you.” So I had incorporated two stories into that chalice lighting: the story of our love in response to the grace of this beautiful earth, and the story of the world’s need for the light of our conscience. Here are two parallel, ongoing and universal stories in which our faith truly is grounded. “From these lights we kindle the flame of faith.” Because while – as that sacred text of our tradition, the Edict of Torda, states – “faith is a gift of God,” we also have to receive the gift. To have the flame of faith, we must also kindle it.

So that’s that story. And then recently there came circulating through Facebook this quotation from a man named Steven Charleston:

“Religion is spirituality shared. I know there are many people who say they are spiritual but not religious because they do not like the idea or experience of organized religion. Often they have been hurt by their religious institution. I can understand that because, like so many others, I have also been gravely disappointed by institutional faith. But I also know that my spirituality alone is only half the truth. Unless I share it in community I will not complete the dance of wisdom. Spirituality encounters the self. Religion encounters the other. Both encounter the wholeness of God.”

“Religion encounters the other.” That’s true in two senses. Using the language of my chalice lighting, we might say that religion encounters the earth and the world. That is to say, it encounters the planet – nature – and it encounters human worlds of community. The planet is pure grace: “There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.” – to borrow Frederick Buechner’s description of grace.* The worlds of human community are partly grace – other people are who they are, and group dynamics are what they are, and so on. But the worlds of human community are also partly our work: we have contributed to making them what they are and we can contribute to maintaining them or changing them, shaping them as far as we can into loving and just places. And so “religion encounters the other”: the things we cannot change and the things we can, the other as nature and the other as people.

“Spirituality encounters the self. Religion encounters the other. Both encounter the wholeness of God.” The mystical element in religion tends to picture a God within, a still small voice, a divine presence we encounter in the heart or in the quiet mind. The prophetic element in it tends to picture a God present and at work in the world around us, through our efforts or through unlooked-for graces that move the world toward love and justice. And the rational element in religion – the domain of theology – keeps coming back to the conclusion that no picture captures God. The wholeness of God is beyond the reach of any image we might hold in our minds. And that’s why many people give up on thinking about God. “Unnecessary hypothesis” is a common way of explaining it. Perhaps unnecessary, but useful for some.

Traditional Christians might have a problem with me opening a worship service by saying that: “Each day the world awaits the light of your conscience and calls you.” It’s not the world that calls, some would want to say. I beg to differ. We might find common ground if we could agree that it’s not only the world that calls. And it’s not only God that calls. And if conscience, like faith, is a gift of God, then does not the world call for God? Not with every voice, to be sure, but does not human community cry out from time to time? If you can picture conscience as a place where God speaks to us, a place inside poor sinful us where an awareness of the divine – of the deep wisdom of love and justice – brings forth a word or an action from us to help move the world toward love and justice, then surely the world that cries out for God does call for the light of your conscience. It calls for the wholeness of God who grants the courage to change the things we can, the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought during this, my extended self-funded sabbatical, to the question of what it is that our congregations need to provide to the people who seek us out, what it is that they’re looking for that they don’t know exactly that they’re looking for but they think they can find it at a church. Reflecting on more than a decade of serving Unitarian Universalist congregations, and stimulated by my studies in the training program for spiritual directors I have enrolled in, I keep circling back to the idea that what would really help those folks who seek us out is if we offered something a little more substantial than principles. Or, to put it another way, if we offered our principles a little more substantially.

One way is to set them in a story, like I did with my chalice lighting. Both a close study of the statement of Unitarian Universalist principles that has taken over our self-definition over the last generation or so, and reflection on my own experience of Unitarian Universalist communities, has convinced me that love and justice are the core values we hold and that by and large we believe that community is our resource for knowing about love and conscience is our resource for knowing about justice. By making covenants in the spirit of love, and working for justice by the light of conscience, we come to know the wholeness of these values. That seems to sum us up. And so to put that into the story of your life:

Each morning the earth awaits the light of your love and thanks you.
Each day the world awaits the light of your conscience and calls you.

each time we gather for worship, and in so doing to remind you of the relationship between your spirituality and this religion, I think we offer our principles in a more substantial way than by merely printing them on the back of the order of service. I’m not saying we can’t do both, I’m saying we need to do more.

Another way is shown in the wonderful rendering of the Principles into verbs that has begun to catch on among us, represented by the sales of these little bamboo pendants that say: “care, share, grow, learn, hear, hope, love.” Rendering the Principles as verbs points us toward what to go do with them, and that – going beyond plopping them down on paper to suggesting ways to incorporate them into your life and live them – is also a more substantial way of communicating our principles. It gives the “so what?” to the abstract statement. Individuals have inherent worth and dignity. So what? Well, so care. Justice, equity and compassion – so what? So, share. Acceptance of one another and encouragement toward spiritual growth: so, grow. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning: so, learn. The right of conscience and the use of democratic processes: so, hear. Hear the voice of conscience that shows us the deep wisdom of justice, and hear each other. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all: so, hope. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence: so, love. Isn’t that better? And isn’t it more substantial?

I was assigned to read a book called The Carmelite Way: An Ancient Path for Today’s Pilgrim, written by John Welch, a member of the Carmelite order. In the introduction, he writes this:

“A pilgrim has expectations of a tradition. It should be able to offer a compelling … vision for life’s journey. It should identify a goal, and warn of difficulties and problems to be encountered on the way. It must provide a map for traveling the way, and offer resources for overcoming its difficulties. A tradition also needs to be able to tell a story of victory over apparent defeat, and celebrate, in anticipation, a goal not yet reached.”**

I think that’s right. And I think that the folks who seek us out to find what they’re looking for that they don’t know exactly that they’re looking for except that they think they can find it at a church, I think those folks are looking for a tradition. A substantial tradition. A tradition offered substantially. Some of that is grace: it has come down to us, we inherited it, and we enjoy it. And some of that substantial offering of a substantial tradition is work that the world calls us to do, and that – if we think about it – our conscience calls us to do, too. To offer a substantial tradition substantially is a form of love. And if we offer it consistently from week to week, even the earth might thank us.

So may it be. Amen.

* Frederick Buechner, “Grace,” can be found in a couple of his published books, and here.

** John Welch O Carm, “The Carmelite Way: An Ancient Path for Today’s Pilgrim” (New York: Paulist Press, 1996)

SERMON: “Virtual Impressions of Justice GA

Not long ago I found myself planning a memorial service with a widow who had her hands full dealing with the business matters that accompany the death of a loved one. Her husband had been in a nursing home for a couple of years, and as he declined, her sense of connection to him had become entwined in her relationship with his professional caregivers, as often happens; and I could see that this pattern was extending to me and to the funeral home. It quickly became clear to me that this pattern was an instrument of her grieving and was to be respected as such. I was reminded of how my father, the accountant, had initially dealt with grieving my mother by tending to such business. That’s what works best for some people. Please don’t ask me to tend to business when I’m grieving, but for some people it’s what they need.

I also was quickly aware of this woman’s intelligence and ability to focus and concentrate – not easy when you’re grieving – and her efficient attention to the needs of others. When I called her to make our appointment, I told her I’d bring some materials to help us plan the service, but mostly I wanted her to tell me about her husband and to tell me some stories about him. When I arrived she immediately offered and prepared a cup of coffee and a plate of cookies, and then without my having to ask or lead the discussion, she began telling me about her husband. I said very little for an hour and a half as she told me his story as well as things about the family and her concerns about certain tensions between family members and what parts of his story she thought I ought to know about but probably shouldn’t mention in the service. She anticipated my every question. Normally I like to meet with more than one family member, in a group, but I left this meeting with a hunch that it was going to be OK – a hunch borne out by the response of other family members after the service.

At the same time I felt the distance between our perspectives. She was not a Unitarian, but she had selected a reading from our hymnal that she wanted in the service, and she asked me to light a chalice – because her husband’s first wife had been a Unitarian and their children, who were going to be there, had been raised in our churches. She also told me about her own spirituality and beliefs about life after death. That’s where I felt the distance. She holds non-mainstream beliefs of a kind that I know a little about but don’t connect with personally. So when she started talking about all that, I felt like it was interrupting my sense of connection with her. Of course I didn’t say that; I listened attentively and told her I understood, which I believe I did. At any rate I didn’t screw up the service. And I think that’s because I listened with the ear of my heart and let love guide me. Which is to say, I strove in that encounter to live my faith.

We talk a lot about living our faith, but what does that look like? Last year I was very taken with the Sunday morning sermon at the UUA’s General Assembly, delivered by Kaaren Anderson. Her message was that faith finds expression in acts of compassion. Acts of compassion lead to what she called “holy encounters” with others. She said that all religious beliefs are accountable to a higher power: compassion. Or, put another way, God is love. She said this is the center of our faith and the meaning of our tradition. It felt accurate. It felt like what I was trying to do in working with that widow. Better yet, it felt like something one could act upon in any situation.

I watched that sermon at home, live on my computer. It happened that no commitments that week would prevent me from watching all the major events – plenaries and worship services – live via webstream. I posted comments in real time on my Facebook page throughout. One of my good friends who was attending GA wrote to me: “I get it. You’re here. Want to meet for coffee today?” I was amazed how connected I could feel to the event through these technologies.

So this year I watched online again. I couldn’t “be there” live online quite as much as last year, but the major events were posted as video pretty quickly, so I felt I was keeping up. By the way, in addition to some 1700 delegates on site, there were another 2000 or so delegates participating in GA business online. So this technological access to GA is making it possible for churches to “send delegates” without burdening them with the high costs of hotels and airfare and the rest. And it’s now possible for whole congregations to participate in GA events as spectators together and share in the experience.

This year GA was different. It was not business as usual. The minimum plenary business required by the UUA Bylaws was done, and the major events – the banner parade, daily morning worships, the Ware Lecture, the Service of the Living Tradition (that honors newly fellowshipped, retired and deceased clergy), the Bridging Service honoring our new young adults – all were held. But instead of seven plenary sessions there were only five – one each day – that totaled about five hours less time, and except for the last day plenary sessions were about two hours or less, meaning they were easier to endure – often in the past those business sessions have gone more than three hours, which is definitely too long. Nothing productive happens after two hours in any meeting.

And instead of workshops on a wide variety of subjects, every workshop was in some way related to public witness, the immigration issue specifically, or how to do public witness or address immigration issues back home in your congregation. On the first day, these workshops included a 3-hour orientation and training on public witness for all those attending, because the centerpiece of this GA was an action of public witness at the “tent city” temporary jail in Phoenix where undocumented people are being detained, and where conditions violate many many standards of human rights and humane treatment. This public witness was coordinated with the work of the Arizona Immigration Ministry, started by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix over two years ago, to which GA delegates were lending their 1500-plus-strong presence and support to that local ministry. The whole General Assembly was geared toward orienting the delegates to the local church’s ministry and its partners in the community, and educating them on the issues and on how to do safe and effective public witness.

GA was different this year, but that’s only half the story. The other half is how that difference came about.

Two years ago, shortly before General Assembly was to begin in Minneapolis, Arizona enacted the controversial immigration law known as SB1070. The UUA Board, which under the UUA bylaws has sole authority to decide where GA will be held, decided to place the question, of whether or not to boycott Arizona and move GA somewhere else, on the agenda for delegates to discuss and decide. The question was on the agenda with a Board recommendation in favor of a boycott. But delegates rejected that recommendation and fashioned a proposal to go to Arizona with the express purpose of making the kind of powerful public witness we saw in June. A group of delegates – including folks who knew a thing or two about how to do effective public witness – met and wrote not only a proposal to go but a statement of values and guidelines that became a roadmap for planning the event. The Board appointed a committee called “the accountability group” to keep the planning on track with the intentions of the proposal.

That was the outcome of the discussion in Minneapolis, but more important was the process. There was a lot of energy around the idea of a boycott; with a Board recommendation in favor of a boycott, we might well have been absent from Arizona this year, except for one thing: the delegates on the floor listened with the ear of their heart when a few stood up and said, “No, we should not boycott, we should be there. We should stand by our local congregation and its partners in the community who are working hard to change the law.” Hearts were open, minds were changed, and consciences resolved to do the right thing. And so we did. And we did the right thing because in the process of deciding what to do, we let love guide us and strove in that encounter with each other to live our faith.

It is tempting to say that what made the difference was our democratic process. But democratic process also happens in the House of Representatives and just think of the things that have gone on there. Furthermore, we followed our democratic process 50 times before this kind of magic happened at a General Assembly. I do think that democratic process provides a space in which the spirit of mutual love has a fine chance to work among us. But what made the difference in Minneapolis, by all accounts, was not simply democracy, but that an important matter of conscience was brought to the agenda, and deliberated in a spirit of love and trust, and those participating – including those responsible for managing the proceedings – listened with the ear of the heart, and let themselves be guided by love, striving together to live this faith.

And that’s also what made the difference in Phoenix. Some 1500 Unitarian Universalists wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts made public witness to injustices being done to individuals and whole neighborhoods in the name of the law, a public witness visible on the street and in the media. But two years before that, some 200 Unitarian Universalists in Phoenix showed up at a public witness event organized by somebody else, wearing those same yellow t-shirts. And they were noticed. Members of the community organizations in Phoenix who had organized that event saw all those people in yellow t-shirts and didn’t know who they were. They saw the word “love” in large print on the t-shirts, and started calling us “the love people.” And they said to themselves, “we need to talk to those people.” And that’s how our local immigration ministry found its partners for justice work in the community. Again, it was showing up in a spirit of love and trust, listening with the ear of the heart, letting love be their guide, and striving in these ways to live our faith that brought that about.

Those who were there – really there, on site, not via the internet like I was – are talking about how powerful the GA experience was this time, how much they learned, and above all how good it felt to do something together that might help end police-state-style injustices going on in Arizona, injustices that have come about and are sustained because too many voters and political leaders let fear overcome love. It was a witness that might just help those voters and leaders to get back to the place where love overcomes fear.

I have to say that – from an online perspective – it was a powerful experience watching that public witness on my computer, and watching all the preparation that led up to it. If you didn’t see it already, I recommend going to uua.org, to the General Assembly page, and watching some of the video posted there. There’s a five-minute video that summarizes the week, and that’s really good for a quick overview and flavor of what went on. I recommend that you watch the vigil at “tent city” to understand what that looked like and what we did there. And take a look at the Saturday evening worship to see how “the love people” prepared themselves to go to that event. If you want to learn more about immigration issues and what kinds of injustices we were standing in witness to, I recommend a workshop that has “part one” in parentheses after its title – it’s the only one that has that, and I just think “part one” is easier for you to remember than the whole title. (There’s only part one, don’t go looking for part two.) Four panelists who do different kinds of social justice work each gave about a 20-minute presentation, so it runs about an hour and a quarter with a question-and-answer session at the end which you can skip if you want to. I think those four things – the 5-minute summary, the vigil, Saturday evening worship before the vigil, and the “part one” workshop – are what you need to know about how GA was different this year. There’s plenty more video to look at there, if you want to get carried away. But I recommend those four, and I recommend that you start thinking now about how, individually or in groups, you can experience GA next year. Because it’s so easy to do now, and – especially the worship services – it’s so good for your soul.

Justice GA was different because of the magic that happens when we meet in love and trust, listen with the ear of our hearts, let love guide us, and strive to live our faith. That’s how it was conceived of, how it was planned, and how it was lived out in June. We can bring home all kinds of learning from General Assembly – about immigration issues, about how to do effective public witness, and more. What we should always remember to bring to it, and to every gathering here at home, is our love, our trust, the ears of our hearts, and our striving to live our faith with love as our guide. So may it be. Amen.

Tradition in Use: Missional Christianity

Here’s an example of tradition in use – look for the progression from cosmology to community to vocation to practice, all illustrating the presence of the sacred in ordinary experience:

 

For comparison, here’s an example where it’s all about community (the social and moral dimension of faith); compelling, but matters of cosmology, vocation or spiritual practice are very nearly absent:

William Barber addresses NAACP

Telling Our Tradition – One “Thread”

Here’s a telling of our tradition, offered at the 2012 “Justice GA”:

The Unitarian Universalist Path from Thoreau to Occupy

This telling lifts up the core importance to Unitarian Universalists of conscience. which Ferenc David called “the source of all spiritual joy and happiness.”

It does so mostly with reference to people outside our tradition, and those within our tradition are depicted not so much shaped by something as resisting something. (Rev. Fred Small lifts this up in the Q&A in slightly different terms.) That’s a problem for people who mainly want to know how to follow and be shaped by our tradition. It would repay us to explore conscience as a force and factor in religious and spiritual life much more often and much more deeply than we typically do. Conscience is a much bigger matter than conscientious objection.

The concluding reference to “Standing on the Side of Love” is helpful, anchoring a prominent current expression of our faith in the story of our faith that is being told.

(The Q&A lifts up many tensions in our history worth finding a way to address as teaching and tradition; also, the theme of “bridging differences,” which suggests the deeper dialogue that happens when one conscience is in respectful and heartfelt conversation with another.)