Thoughts about the UUA, #1: The end

This has been a hell of a year. I keep up with some ministers; the tension is strong. Will the UUA last, and will it matter if it doesn’t?  Will we give up on our claims of liberal religion? Is our only appetite for political reaction? There’s a lot of fear, too. A fear of being ganged-up-on and denounced by amateur revolutionaries if your politics aren’t right.

Rather than making one big post, I’ll get my thoughts out in managable pieces. I ask your indulgence if the flow is a bit uneven.

The UUA Board of Trustees is having a meeting now, and so was looking at the packet. Within it is “draft|proposal” charge to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. (PDF)

One line stands out, following a rehearsal of the anti-oppression language we all have heard so much of for years. “The MFC shall ask relevant constituencies for recommendations and direction on how the MFC should be restructured, rebuilt, or disbanded.”

Disbanded?  When did that become an option?

Looking at that, in the context of all the other worrying signs, another minister asked me “do you have plans to leave?”

“Not yet,” I replied.

“I do.”

Working up a communion set

A couple of blog posts ago I described communion cups used centuries ago and British Unitarian churches. Some were decidedly not of a typical chalice shape. I think the tumbler (beaker) shape deserves consideration.

Flexibility has benefits. A Christian minister might have to bring his or her own communion wear. But the affordable pieces are often shabby and a good stuff is extraordinary really expensive. The unreasonable choices a minister might make have led me to an unexpected suggestion.

  1. Communion ware should be affordable (though not necessarily cheap) and easy to maintain.
  2. Congruent in form with established practice.

I think I have something: a Japanese titanium tumbler. This one is from Horie.

You’ll excuse that it’s marketed for beer. It’s attractive, easy to keep clean, doesn’t have a metallic smell and is not commonly seen in the United States, so easy to distinguish for sacred service. It weighs next to nothing and is terribly strong; you don’t get both (or sometimes either) with pewter, which was formerly my favorite material for communion ware. It’s not tiny — a problem with “chapel sized” communion chalices — and you could even go a size down.

Downsides: they’re hard to get, and there’s no plate or basin to go with it. A rectangular wooden tray, perhaps of laminated wood, might do the trick.

I considered this question with individual cups several years ago.

Changes made to General Assembly workshop

Earlier I was checking to see if there was any update about of the Ware Lecture and other events at General Assembly, and so noticed that the link to the preliminary schedule (PDF) was marked as unread. Had the document changed? Had the workshop I complained about?

Revised workshop description

 

It had, and at least the description has. I’m still not thrilled by the title — based on the presenter’s book’s title — but if I’d seen this description before I wouldn’t have complained.

I’m glad that the powers-that-be responded to the complaints by Christians like myself and took affirmative and constructive action. In the process, the deccription has become less divisive — and less prone to be an anti-Christian dogwhistle — and I hope more representative of the workshop itself.

And I’m proud that the Christians stepped up. It’s important to remind those who resent or reject our presence (whomever that may be, and they certainly do exist) that we have a wide set of opinions of our own; are constant, creative and productive members; and that we don’t exist to fill in someone else’s idea of how Unitarian Universalism should be.

What shape the communion cup?

Talk of the Annual Meeting of the (British) Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, and noticing the communion service there this morning, put me in mind of an quaint old book.

Covered, handled chalice from Norwich, Octagon Chapel

The 1897 Vestiges of Protestant Dissent is something of register of British and Irish Unitarian, Free Christian, Non-Subscribing and kindred churches, with — and this is the part that amazes me — a listing of their communion plate. Much was then-new electroplate, but other pieces were quite old and noteworthy, so much so that several engravings were executed.

What fascinates me is the use of porringers, posset-cups, “loving cups”, mugs and tumblers (beakers), and not just the accustomed chalice: that inverted bell on a stem, sometimes a knop, and foot we all know and associate with the Eucharist. Posset-cup communion cup, Chichester

Many long-time readers know I have an interest in found communion ware, and lament the division of the communion ware market into the unaffordable and the tawdry. Which will bring me to what I think is an ideal communion cup for our days, and particularly for Unitarian and Universalist ministers — and indeed at least one in Vestiges — who have to bring their own. For next time.

Policy updates at British Unitarian General Assembly

The annual meeting of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian churches isn’t over yet, but they did pass (or seem to pass, if I read tweets correctly) two measures I think are noteworthy.

The first gives the vote to the class of small congregations, (see measure 4) of which there are exactly two. Until now, a church with at least 8 but fewer than 12 members could could be recognized, with voice but no vote. What might have been called a mission church in another setting. Because there are full members of the denomination that have fallen below 12 members, members of the Bangor church — one of the two “small congregations” — sensed unfairness and petitioned the executive committee for a bylaws change. Eight and twelve members may not seem so different, but in a denomination with so many very small churches, it may mean the difference of encouraging more groups to organize, or not.

The other measure shortens the annual meeting from 72 hours over four days to 48 hours over three days. Cost is the main stated reason, but I imagine time away from home or work is also a practical concern. The sample schedule is tightly packed, but seems feasible when it’s hosted at an all-inclusive conference center, as it is this year. It also means tightening up the legislative process, which we’ve also seen (to the good) on this side of the Atlantic. If I read correctly, the plan will be reviewed in three years.

Unwelcome news at General Assembly

I was thinking the schedule of General Assembly was very late this year — who’s giving the Ware Lecture? — but then at lunch saw that a partial and preliminary schedule was posted at UUA.org/GA. It didn’t take long before I saw the Allies for Racial Equity offering from this eye-watering title:

Because there’s nothing like celebrating Holy Week then discovering other people in your denomination denounce Christianity with such a broad brush. What a punch to the gut. Shame on you.

And before someone pipes up by saying “Oh, surely that’s those bad Christians and not you good Christians”, I’m not buying such an easy distinction. Because in this of all years, and after 30 years of minimizing, sidelining comments by other Unitarian Universalists, a plausable denial of Christian bating — or any coded insult to any group — won’t fly.

Christians are the only religious group that Unitarian Universalists regularly and freely denounce. Christians are the only religious group who have their acceptance based on the condition of being similar to other Unitarian Universalists. The option to be a bland and domesticated version of Christianity in no option, but a double standard, and sickening besides.

And if forced to choose, I will always choose the body of Christ, which understands sin, repentance, forgiveness and grace. And, unlike the Unitarian Universalist Association, isn’t likely to worry and convulse itself to death.

Sermon: Grace Alone

This is the manuscript of the sermon I preached today at Universalist National Memorial Church. The texts, from the Revised Common Lectionary are Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21.


Grace Alone

Thank you for having me in the pulpit of Universalist National Memorial Church this morning, and thanks to Pastor Dave Gatton for inviting me.

Today, you heard this from the Apostle Paul

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived… But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved

And you have heard this from the Gospel of John

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

I’d like to walk with you briefly through these passages. To do them justice might take the rest of our lives. First, from the relative tolerance and pluralism of the early twenty-first century, it’s easy to look at these words and cringe a bit when meeting the judgment that’s implied in them. We must put aside any initial discomfort and persevere through so we can get to the meaning.

John 3:16 is one of the small number of biblical passages that have such an iconic status that they’re known just by the citation. The 23rd Psalm is another; so is First Corinthians 13. In fact, so iconic that we’re expected to know the passage, because the citation posted on a sign, at a ball game or a public demonstration. No biblical passage stands for evangelical Christianity—at least the American version of evangelical Christianity—so clearly as John 3:16. As a result, it stands as shorthand code for a kind of Christianity that too often is obscure, anti-intellectual and exclusionary.

And self-serving. Display the citation as a way of spreading the Gospel. The logic follows that without the gospel, you’re damned. And that it’s a Christian responsibility to spread it as widely as possible. Maybe that you’re doing something for God?

Apparently it doesn’t matter how minimal or coded this service is, but that implies that salvation is a procedure, like a mechanical process or a financial transaction. A procedure that creates a relationship with God that relieves me of pain or trouble or loss here in the world, or in the world to come, or both. And add feeling to validate the experience. Perhaps some of you grew up with this point of view. And perhaps that leads people to deep relationship with God. But if you’re here, perhaps not. So take to heart these words from the Gospel of John, which is not code, but is our hope.

Preach the gospel first with your lives. But your initiative is not enough. We need the grace of God.

Being called by grace

I think the really scandalous part of the passage from Ephesians is trusting, knowing, sensing that God looks into our hearts and knows what lies therein. Even more scandalous than God having a child and heir. God reaches out to us, in whatever condition we are, because we cannot reach out first: this is what I mean by grace.

Because that means that our well constructed face to the world will not fool or convince the Eternal God. This constructed face, or persona, is how we express our individuality out of our common humanity. Our persona is all anyone else would know about us. And maybe all we know of ourselves, and God speak to us through it.

Likewise, God is known through a face – as Christ, say, or through the Spirit. We can only receive that which is shown to us; the relationship of understanding is entirely one-sided. God can seek us out, but the inner life of God is utterly unknown to human thought. God being so unlike us, eternal, self-existent in perfectly free, we can only know what God chooses to reveal to us. Moses on the mountain knew not to look upon the face of the Eternal God. It is too much for mortal beings to bear.

Living with grace

We are finite and fragile beings. We are limited to our material bodies and our understanding is limited to what we perceive by our senses. We have the power of imagination; but we all know that wishful thinking is not the same as fact.

And perhaps this, too, is a bit of wishful thinking, but grace is a gift from God.

We can cry out for God in our pain or confusion or our workday ugh, but what words do we use and what messenger do we send? God reaches to us so that we might add our particular voice in praise in return to the Eternal. Grace breaks the ice, supplies the context and starts the conversation. It cannot be stereotyped, duplicated or mass-produced. You will not find evidence of grace on your birth certificate or genealogy. It does not seek your passport. You will not find it on your tax returns. And while it pays dividends it cannot be bought or sold. It is free, and will set you free. It is also costly, and can make your heart ache.

Because grace is not a simple or single thing, it will be interpreted as different experiences to different people. Those low in spirit might see it as serendipity or simple good luck. A glimpse of blue in an otherwise gray and clouded sky. The unspoken word of kindness from an unseen friend.

These notions are not wrong.

Just as we cannot buy or sell grace, we cannot forbid it nor deny it in others. It is not the wage for our own spiritual striving. We did not deserve it and did not buy it with our prayers, devotion, or good works. It is free, fathomless and eternal as God.

And yet to pass off grace as just a delusion or a remembered happiness is to diminish its possibility in changing our lives. Even though we did not earn this grace, it will make demands of us, sooner or later.

The slaver’s witness

I bet that when most people hear about grace one thing comes to mind more than any other: the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It certainly one of the most anthologized hymns, and probably one of the most popular.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a Wretch like me.

John Newton portrait
The wretch, or rather the author, is John Newton and his story gives us guidance about how grace works in us, and what our moral response to its power is.

He’s not exactly what you call the hero of his own story, but rather a man of his time who though some unusual experiences and—yes, the grace of God—managed to step outside the norms that he was born into.

History remembers him as the hymn writer and an evangelical Anglican minister. But started as a sailor, first impressed into a service against his will, later finding a position on a slave ship in the notorious triangle trade between Africa and the Americas.

Then, a twist of fate, at the age of twenty, he was abandoned by his shipmates and was himself enslaved in Africa, where he remained for three years until rescued. Sailing home, Newton had a religious experience leading him into evangelical Christianity and an amendment of life. No drinking, no smoking, no swearing. Slave trading? Not so fast. This you might say was his moment of grace, but only partially. That’s how Newton saw himself, looking back later in life.

This was the middle of the 18th century. His business was perfectly legal, and apart from the Quakers (and the enslaved people themselves) acceptable. He continued slaving for six years when a stroke—he was still quiet young—caused to give up seafaring. So no slave trading no? Not so fast. He still retained a financial interest in human misery.

How can there be any redemption from this? Now land bound, Newton tried to enter the ministry: Anglican, Congregational, Presbyterian, whoever would take him. It took years but he was eventually ordained a priest in the Church of England. As luck would have it, a wealthy benefactor gave him a large allowance for the help of the poor, and his own faith drew a following. It was during this time that Newton wrote his famous hymn, and another much less known but found in our red hymnal. (#393) Later, he served a church in London filled with influential people, including the famed William Wilberforce. But though his opinion about slavery was slowly changing, he hadn’t publicly come to terms with his own part in the slave trade.

He could have very easily finished his life, the slaving life behind him, still legal if not pleasant, and no one could have accused him of doing anything worse than the next person.

But redemption follows repentance. Now an old man, Newton published a pamphlet and preached influential sermons that exposed the horrors that he saw and what he did. He allied himself with politicians like Wilberforce campaigning to abolish the slave trade—it took almost 20 years—but the law passed in 1807. And while it did not abolish slavery, it did abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. It was a vital step.

Newton died later that year: after its passage, but before it became effective the following year. Fitting for a man, who walked a wavy line between two words. Slave, slaver and abolitionist. Sinner and reformer. Lost and found.

Newton’s walk was slow, certainly too slow by today’s standards. We can resist and turn, and all we’ll have is regret when we wait too late. Grace pulls, and we must respond.

The Universalist take

So far, I haven’t said anything that couldn’t be said in any number of Protestant churches—or indeed, perhaps any Christian church. The hard lines about grace and salvation that divided Protestants and Catholics at the Reformation, and the churches of the East and West are now much softer. There’s more agreement now. There’s more understanding, at least formally.

So, I’d like to look at our Universalist tradition to see what we can add. I looked back to the Winchester Profession of 1803, the cornerstone theological statement of Universalist faith. I’d like to thank the Reverend Scott Axford, the pastor of the First Universalist Church in Providence for helping me understand that the Winchester Profession better than I’m otherwise might, though any misunderstandings are entirely my fault. It starts:

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

Here we see the nature of God being described as love, not a simple attribute, but that God’s nature is identified with love. This is based on God’s revelation in scripture and Jesus’ behavior. It informs our understanding of who Jesus is as the revealer of that love—and for the sermon today—the intent of the Spirit, by which we know grace. God’s personas act in love in different ways. God’s spirit breaks through to us. Grace is an act of God’s love.

And so the Winchester Profession finishes:

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

This is answer to the question, “So what now?” Holiness—that way of living which puts us in harmony with God’s ways—and true happiness go together. And why shouldn’t they? Holiness—I know it’s a loaded word— is the positive response to grace itself.

We don’t earn God’s salvation, but it does direct us towards worthy lives. That’s guidance for some, and reassurance for all.

Friends, we need to live a balanced gracious life, even as we wait for God’s grace to draw us in a divine direction.

Rarely this means acts of heroic and sacrificial giving. For most people, it means lives of the under-rated virtues of goodness, consideration, patience and generosity. It means being reflective and committed. It means being expectant and open-hearted. The spiritual gifts that map to social skills when we say, “she is truly a gracious person”; “they are truly gracious hosts.”

And if you find it hard to be gracious in the face of adversity and the face of custom, find a trusted friend—perhaps here in this church—and test out your idea. Sometimes saying what’s right makes the right action obvious and inevitable. But do try. Don’t quench the spirit. Don’t grow any older in regret. Don’t grow any older not trying.

In short, we rely on God to guide us. To guide our thoughts and guide our prayers. Only then can we begin the interplay between human minds and the divine.

For holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected.

My very old, long gone Cambridge Platform page, again

I was chatting with some friends about the Cambridge Platform, what it means to us and how we promote it (as one does) and remembered that one of my early web sites was dedicated to it. I have the old files — there’s something alarming about seeing files “last updated 20 years ago” — and may clean them up for a new life on this domain.

Until then, you can see the site as it earlier existed (and not even the earliest!) thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

The New England Way

Fixing numbers (that appear as text) in LibreOffice

Time to start cracking Unitarian Universalist Association numbers again. Congregational certification ends at the end of the month, and it’ll be exciting to see this year’s membership and financial numbers.

These days, one can download the certification numbers in a CSV file, which I then open in a LibreOffice spreadsheet. (And thanks to whomever made that improvement.) But anything with a dollar sign is essentially a text item, not a number to be manipulated.

If you find and replace all of the dollar signs, you will find that they were replaced by a single opening quotation mark.

See this page for instructions on how to successfully remove it. (This post is as much a reminder for myself as instruction for others.)

Happy data crunching!