4 Essential Posts for Religious Progressives, Part One

Like many of my friends and colleagues, I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to make sense of how the presidential election turned out. I see this as a spiritual task because spirituality is, after all, essentially about finding meaning in (and making sense of) this life.

hand-4-fourHow we live our lives in light of the meaning we find in it and the sense we make of it is ultimately an expression of our spirituality. And for those of us whose lives are grounded in a progressive spirituality (one “which reveres the natural world, connects religious faith with novel scientific theories, and has a forward-looking agenda for society’s transformation” according to Gordon Lynch) the results of the election are, to say the least, a challenge.

So I’ve spent the last few weeks keeping an eye out for blog posts, etc., that help me with my spiritual practice of making sense of the new political reality in which we find ourselves.

Over the next few days, I’ll look at four post or articles have been essential in that process.

First, there’s Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie’s “Now Is Liberal Religion’s Moment.” Yoffie put into words something I believe is absolutely true: “For those of us who are adherents of liberal religion in America, this is our moment.”

“America is in peril,” Yoffie says, “and we must take the lead in saving it, preaching a message of justice and compassion.” He goes on to offer “4 items…for religious leaders to consider” rallying around that “protect the weak, the vulnerable, the struggling worker, the immigrant, and the children of poverty.”

  1. Take on those politicians who have found it politically opportune to peddle divisive anti-Muslim bigotry.
  2. Insist on access to healthcare for all, and be ready to advocate on both the state and federal level.
  3. Provide moral and legal support to immigrants entitled to be here and demand compassionate treatment of those here without sanction of law.
  4. Strengthen the ritual and liturgical elements of your congregation’s religious life.

While I agree that all four of these items are important, it’s that last one that really grabbed my attention. Yoffie says that

Congregants will best be able to deal with difficult public issues if they are fortified by their faith. Liberal congregations that are most effective in public advocacy are those that do not ignore liturgy, hymns, holidays, and festivals. The best way to counter the cheap platitudes of our political season is to begin by strengthening your religious community with prayer, study, and the rituals of your tradition.

As a minister who works on with nearly 200 UU congregations on the middle judicatory level, I take Yoffie’s words seriously. I know from experience that the congregations that fortify the faith of their people are the ones who make the biggest impact on their communities and the world.

So I very much take this as a guide for how I’m going to approach my work in the coming months and years. Whenever I work with a congregation in the future, one of the first things I’ll be keeping an eye out for is whether or not the leadership is “strengthening [their] religious community with prayer, study, and the rituals of [their] tradition.”

I’ll be looking at another essential post tomorrow, Jim Wallis’s “10 Commitments of Resistance in the Trump Era.”

Advent: The Season of With-ness

Yesterday I had the privilege of “speaking out of the silence” during the semi-programmed worship at the Minneapolis Friends Meeting. Semi-programmed means someone is asked to “share a brief message (two to ten minutes) which will lead people into worship rather than serve as the central element.”

Very different from preaching a sermon, obviously. Since yesterday was the first Sunday in Advent, I thought that sharing some of my reflections on the season was appropriate. So I began my message with this passage from God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

0664238874Jesus stands at the door knocking (Rev. 3:20). In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us. Do you want to close the door or open it?

If I choose to open the door, who will I see? In addition to the homeless and the hungry, this Advent season I see the weary and the worried as well, all those who’ve already been affected by the results of this election—ethnic minorities, Muslims, women, immigrants, LGBTQ people.

Now, more than ever, God calls us to be with them.

The question for me is, How? How am I to be with them?

Sam Wells, the current vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields in central London and author of A Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God, “argues that Jesus spent 90% of his life simply being among the people of Nazareth, sharing their hopes and struggles, therefore Christians should place a similar emphasis on being alongside people in need rather than hastening to impose solutions.”

For Wells, “with” is the most important word in theology. Rather than working for or even working with others, we are called first and foremost to be with them.

Wells closes a lecture he gave on A Nazareth Manifesto with a “quotation, from the mystic Thomas a Kempis, in his work The Imitation of Christ. He writes, ‘That which is done for love (though it be little and contemptible in the sight of the world) becometh wholly fruitful.’ Working for may be done for love, or for many other reasons. Working with may be done for love, though it is possible to have other goals in mind. But being with, as far as I can tell, has only one motivation: it is because the other is precious for their own sake, solely to be enjoyed with no thought to use. Being with can only be done for love. And in that, it imitates the way God loves us. God is with us, Emmanuel, for no other reason than that God loves us for our own sake. God enjoys us. That is the mystery of creation and salvation. That is the mystery that all our ministry, service and witness must seek to imitate and emulate. If, and only if, it does, it will become wholly fruitful.

I closed my message there because, as I mentioned earlier, the purpose was to lead people into worship rather than serve as the central element. Anything beyond this would have started to sound like a sermon. It was kind of liberating to end things there.

If you’re interested in learning more about what Sam Wells has to say about “being with,” you can find a PDF of a lecture he gave on A Nazareth Manifesto here: nazarethmanifesto_samwells.

Faith, Spirituality, and Religion: Part Four

This is the admittedly rushed conclusion to the sermon I presented yesterday in Okoboji, Iowa. Good news is I get to preach it a couple of more times this year. I’ll post the final version in November.

Here’s my perspective on religion: it’s where faith and spirituality are lived out in community. Usually that means like-minded people who share a particular belief about that transcending mystery coming together for worship and fellowship.

Hindus gather in temples, Jews in synagogues, Christians in churches, Muslims in mosques. While there are many variations in all of these religions, there’s a basic world view that their adherents share. In all of these religions, the basic world view start with some sort of belief in God.

In addition to a belief in God, these religions often have a set of individual and communal practices that distinguish them from other religions. Unitarian Universalists are no exception. We gather as a body for worship on Sunday mornings, something we share with most Christian denominations. While our services may not differentiate us from our Christian cousins, the time and place of those services alone distinguish us from Hindus, Jews, and Muslims.

But is there something about the way faith and spirituality is lived out in our religious communities that distinguishes us from Christians, too? I think there is.

It’s how our religion binds us together (which is one of the meanings the root of the word “religion” can have, “to bind, connect”). Unitarian Universalism connects us is by acknowledging that the living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  • Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

And it does this through the “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”

No other religion I know of connects its adherents in this sort of way. Unitarian Universalism acknowledges that we, as individuals, experience that transcending mystery and wondering a myriad of ways. What’s more, Unitarian Universalism recognizes that while we may have different ways of living out our individual experience of that transcending mystery and wonder (those different pathways Ortberg talks about), we can encourage and support one another alone the way, despite our theological differences.

It’s a blessing we were born.
It matters what we do with our lives.
What each of us knows about god is a piece of the truth.
We don’t have to do it alone.
—Laila Ibrahim

Faith, Spirituality, and Religion: Part Three

So from this Unitarian Universalist’s perspective, faith is a commitment to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, grounded in relationship with the transcending mystery and wonder that creates and upholds life.

Spirituality, then, is how we live out that relationship on a daily basis. And one of the gifts of the Unitarian Universalist tradition is that it acknowledges and even celebrates the variety of ways individuals relate to the that transcending mystery and wonder. Here are just a few ways (as identified by John Ortberg).

People on the intellectual pathway draw closer to the transcending mystery as they learn more about it. My favorite example of someone on this pathway is Carl Sagan. Sagan liked to use the word “Cosmos” to describe that transcending mystery.

Cosmos is a Greek word for the order of the universe. It is, in a way, the opposite of Chaos. It implies the deep interconnectedness of all things. It conveys awe for the intricate and subtle way in which the universe is put together.

And here’s how he described his first experience of just how powerful an intellectual relationship with the Cosmos could be:

I went to the librarian and asked for a book about stars … And the answer was stunning. It was that the Sun was a star but really close. The stars were suns, but so far away they were just little points of light … The scale of the universe suddenly opened up to me. It was a kind of religious experience. There was a magnificence to it, a grandeur, a scale which has never left me. Never ever left me.

People who follow the relational pathway find that they have a deep sense of that transcending mystery and wonder when they’re involved in significant relationships. Ortberg suggests that small groups and community experiences become indispensable to this type of person in their spiritual quest.

People on the serving pathway find their sense of place in the cosmos most tangibly when they are involved in helping others. Ortberg notes that if this is you, you may find that you are somewhat uncomfortable in a setting where you don’t have a role to play in helping others. Acts of service come naturally to you.

If you prefer this pathway you have a natural gift and inclination for celebration and worship. Some of your most formative moments occur during times of worship along this pathway, like those colleagues I mentioned earlier who enjoy writing sermons and preaching every week.

People on the activist pathway have a high level of enthusiasm and energy. Ortberg says that if you are on this pathway, you have a passion to be involved through action. Persons on this pathway have a fervent desire for social justice, peace initiatives, and causes that lead to transformation.

People on the contemplative pathway love large blocks of uninterrupted time alone. If you’re on this pathway, Ortberg notes that making time to be present to the mystery and wonder in silence and solitude is vital to the health of your soul.

People who follow the creation pathway find they have a passionate ability to connect with the forces that create and uphold life in nature. For Emerson, Thoreau and other of our New England Transcendentalist forebears, time alone in nature was an essential part of their spirituality.

Ortberg closes his summary of each of these pathways the pretty much the same way: Persons preferring a particular pathway will need to be open to other pathways in order to maintain a healthy balance in their spiritual life.

And that’s where religion comes in.

Faith, Spirituality, and Religion: Part Two

Does anyone know what this is?


Or this?


What if I did this?

It’s an electron circling a proton (from http://www.particlezoo.net/), which makes a what? An atom—a hydrogen atom, to be precise. Or to be even more precise, a hydrogen-1, or protium, or light hydrogen atom. Just a proton and an electron, the most abundant isotope of the most abundant element in the universe.

Now if I did this demonstration for an ancient Greek philosopher, like Democritus, he’d disagree that the one particle circling another represented an atom, because the Greek word ἄτομον, atomon, means “uncuttable” or “indivisible.” And clearly I could cut or divide this “planetary model” of the atom in two.

The point is that what the ancient Greeks or Indians (for that matter) considered an atom, something uncuttable or indivisible, we would call a particle. Because we’ve known for the last couple a hundred years that atoms are not irreducible, but they themselves can be broken down into ever small parts.

So this is a perfectly serviceable representation of a hydrogen atom. But it’s only a representation. There a plenty of other ways to imagine what an atom is like.

Far from being the hard and solid particles they were believed to be since antiquity, the atoms turned out to consist of vast regions of space in which extremely small particles—the electrons—moved around the nucleus, bound to it by electric forces. It is not easy to get a feeling for the order of magnitude of atoms, so far is it removed from our macroscopic scale. The diameter of an atom is about one hundred millionth of a centimeter. In order to visualize this diminutive size, imagine an orange blown up to the size of the Earth. The atoms of the orange will then have the size of cherries. Myriads of cherries, tightly packed into a globe of the size of the Earth—that’s a magnified picture of the atoms in an orange.

An atom, therefore, is extremely small compared to macroscopic objects, but it is huge compared to the nucleus in its center. In our picture of cherry-sized atoms, the nucleus of an atom will be so small that we will not be able to see it. If we blew up the atom to the size of a football, or even to room size, the nucleus would still be too small to be seen by the naked eye. To see the nucleus, we would have to blow up the atom to the size of the biggest dome in the world, the dome of St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. In an atom of that size, the nucleus would have the size of a grain of salt! A grain of salt in the middle of the dome of St Peter’s, and specks of dust whirling around it in the vast space of the dome—this is how we can picture the nucleus and electrons of an atom.

—Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics

Kind of makes these two guys look a little silly. But the grain of salt surrounded by specks of dust is once again just another representation. For over a century scientists have acknowledged that particles don’t just act like particles—they can act like waves, too.

So another way to describe the quantum state of a particle is something called a wave function.

Here’s the wave function for hydrogen:


And if that doesn’t look strange enough, there’s an even more complex view of the particles inside of an atom.

In the spring of 1940, John Wheeler proposed the “one-electron postulate” in a phone call to Richard Feynman. It states that, “All electrons and positrons are manifestations of a single entity moving backwards and forwards in time.”

I don’t even know where one would begin to come up with a representation for that idea.

The point is that the idea of the atom that the ancient Greeks and Indians came up with seems pretty simple compared to what we now believe to be true. But we can understand what they were trying to get at—that somewhere inside the world as we know it is something that’s “uncuttable” and “indivisible.”

Of course, the ancients didn’t just contemplate things unimaginably small, they thought about the other end of the scale, too, incredibly huge concepts like eternity and infinity. They even had a word for the largest thing they could imagine: Deva, Deus, Theus; words we understand as referring to God.

In some ways, God was like the atom for the ancients, something indivisible. Since there was nothing bigger than God, God was pretty powerful. I think that Rudolf Bultmann in essay “Crisis of Faith” gives us a sense of what that power felt like:

It is God who makes us finite, who makes a comedy of our care, who allows our longing to miscarry, who casts us into solitude, who sets a terminus to our knowing and doing, who calls us to duty, and who gives the guilty over to torment.

It was this image of God that lead some ancients to say, “The only happy person is a dead person.”

But there’s another side to this deity as well. Bultmann balances his image of God with these words:

And yet, at the same time, it is God who forces us into life and drives us into care; who puts longing and desire for love in our hearts; who gives us thoughts and strength for our work, and who places us in the eternal struggle between self-assertion and duty.

Now many of us, maybe most of us, would hesitate to label this power Bultmann describes as “God.” But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And this is where faith comes in. If faith is, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith says, “a quiet confidence and joy which enables one to feel at home in the universe,” then feeling at home means coming to terms with mysterious power Bultmann calls “God.”

Or, in another appropriately wordy way, what we Unitarian Universalists call “that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”

Faith for me is about finding our place in the cosmos. It’s what the free and responsible search for truth and meaning is all about.

Faith, Spirituality, and Religion: Part One

So I’m preaching in Okoboji, Iowa, this Sunday, and I thought I’d use this space to gather my thoughts on the subject: Faith, Spirituality, and Religion from a Unitarian Universalist Perspective. Here’s what I have so far:

Don’t tell my fellow clergy persons, but one of the best parts of my job as a Congregational Life Consultant for the MidAmerica Region of the UUA is that I don’t have to write a sermon every week. Now some of my colleagues would find that problematic because they actually like to write a sermon every week. That kind of minister is what we call a preacher.

And while I do get to preach occasionally, being a preacher isn’t what I would call my primary identity as a minister. I tend to think of myself more as a teacher. So while I was pleased when I was invited last January to visit you all once again, I was especially excited about the question that was proposed to me: “How would you define the essence of Unitarian Universalist faith to someone who does not know.”

The question sounds to me like a learning opportunity—not just for you, but for me, too. Any time any of us gets a chance to think deeply about our religious tradition and share our thoughts is a blessing in my book. So I want to thank you in advance for your willingness to listen to where my contemplation on the subject has taken me.

My strategy for exploring this question starts with an assumption: in trying got explain the essence of the Unitarian Universalist faith to someone who does not know, it’s helpful to put our tradition in a context the listener might understand. That means starting with an apples to apples comparison of our faith with other faith traditions.

To narrow the focus even further, I thought I would compare some specific concepts associated with religious traditions in general; hence the title: “Faith, Spirituality, and Religion from a Unitarian Universalist Perspective.”

Before I look at those concept, however, I’d like to take a detour and talk a little bit about looking at anything from a Unitarian Universalist perspective. A quick Google search found a ton of topics approached from a UU perspective: congregational governance, lay leadership, salvation, spring holidays, religious hospitality, science, technology and society, prayer, spiritual practice, mortality and immortality—all from a Unitarian Universalist perspective.

So what, exactly, does that phrase mean. If “someone who does not know” about our faith tradition is here today listening to me preach about “Faith, Spirituality, and Religion from a Unitarian Universalist Perspective,” are they necessarily getting an accurate view of what those concepts mean to UUs? Probably not.

That’s because embracing multiple perspectives is an integral part of our tradition (which is really what this sermon is about). What “someone who does not know” would really be getting here today is one Unitarian Universalist’s perspective on those concepts. And most importantly, even those of you who think you know what a UU perspective might be on those concepts are getting the opportunity to have your assumptions challenged and/or your suspicions confirmed.

And that’s what Unitarian Universalism is all about: our inherent worth and dignity is enhanced by our free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Faith Styles

If you hang around with spiritual directors long enough, certain names show up again and again. Tilden Edwards and Rose Mary Dougherty, for example. Both have been publishing books about spiritual direction since the 1990s, and both had a hand in the formation of the Shalem Institute.

Another name that I’ve run across multiple times is John Mabry.

I first ran across Mabry’s writing when I was looking for resources about interfaith approaches to spiritual guidance. His book Noticing the Divine: An Introduction to Interfaith Spiritual Guidance was the first book I read about spiritual direction.

Faith StylesWhat impresses me about Mabry is that he’s both a pastor actively serving a congregation (Grace North Church in Berkeley, California) and a practicing spiritual director. In fact, he’s the Director of the Interfaith Spiritual Direction Certificate Program at the Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley as well.

(There’s a bit of a UU angle here. The Chaplaincy Institute and the Starr King School for the Ministry have a joint program to train interfaith chaplains.)

We recommned a couple of Mabry’s books in the Clergy Seminar Series in Congregation-Based Spiritual Direction: Faithful Generations: Effective Ministry Across Generational Lines and Faith Styles: Ways People Believe. I’d like to focus on Faith Styles in this post, and I’ll say more about Faithful Generations in another post.

According to Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat in their review of Faith Styles, “Mabry has developed a model of spiritual assessment that is both non-developmental and non-hierarchical in nature.”

What Mabry did was interview people about their faith using the following questions:

  • How is the Divine imagined?
  • What is the nature of one’s relationship with the Divine?
  • How does one construct meaning in the world?
  • What are the accepted sources of spiritual wisdom?
  • How is spiritual growth assessed?
  • What spiritual disciplines and practices are honored?
  • What are the advantages of the style?
  • What are the disadvantages?

Mabry discerned from those interviews six distinct faith styles;

  • traditional believers
  • spiritual eclectic
  • ethical humanists
  • liberal believers
  • religious agnostics
  • jack believers

(The Brussats note that jack believers are “known in some communities as ‘backsliders’ or ‘apostates.'”)

Mabry took his questions and used them to outline each of the different Faith Styles. Here, for example, is what a “spiritual eclectic” looks like:

  • The Divine is imagined as a spiritual force animating all of nature.
  • Pantheistic—there is no distinction between creation and the Divine.
  • Meaning comes by protecting the biosphere and all creatures, and by promoting greater consciousness.
  • The spiritual wisdom of every tradition, in one’s own experience, and in the body is honored.
  • Spiritual growth is assessed to the degree to which one can see through the illusion of separateness and realize one’s unity with all being.
  • Spiritual eclectics practice prayer, meditation, ritual, sacred reading, art, exercise, being in nature, and activism.
  • Advantages: diversity and spiritual generosity.
  • Disadvantages: Gullibility and a lack of groundedness.

Obviously this are some broad generalizations. But there appears to be some truth in each of Mabry’s styles.

What’s especially helpful here in terms of spiritual direction is the questions themselves. Discussing how a directee imagines the divine, or how they assess spiritual growth could be fruitful in a spiritual direction session.