Archive for April, 2013

Apr 29 2013

When “Transformational Themes” Get Tough: A Ministerial Reflection

Published by under Minister's Musings

April’s theme, “Salvation,” caused quite a stir for some of us. Some have lifted up positive responses, such as new interest or insight, while the negative responses have included discomfort, dislike, offense, and a range of assumptions about why the heck we at the First Unitarian Church of San José have taken up these “transformational themes,” anyway. In last month’s newsletter and April’s worship services, I have tried to share my own wrestling with this particular theme. In fact, I wrestle with the themes every month, but last month’s was particularly hard for me, too.

Still, you may not have been interested in wrestling with it at all. As some of you have said, the heavy “traditional Christian baggage” that comes with this word salvation may have made it darned near impossible to hear how Unitarian Universalists make meaning of it, and how it can be useful to our own real, contemporary lives.

          I wish we had all the time and space in the world to go deep each time we gather, each time we communicate. Then we could look more deeply and broadly at how “salvation” is not just a Christian concept—how it shows up in other religions and philosophies throughout human history. We could unpack and set aside the dug-in associations that come from just some parts of the Christian faith, those parts that harangue about “God” “saving” humankind from “sin” “through Jesus’ death.”  Each quotation-marked word or phrase needs about a year’s worth of sermons and writings for us Unitarian Universalists if we want to build our own theology …

          In these 21st-century days, however, we usually don’t have that kind of time or attention span. I—and the Small Group Ministry Content Team, and others who guide our ministries—have to make choices about what tiny slice of a huge topic we will take up. All of us have to listen closely to each other to hear the tunes of belief, longing, fear, hope, love, uniqueness, and authenticity that underlie everything we say (and write) about these themes.

So why I have chosen to explore these “transformational themes”? It’s not some fruitless attempt to “return to the past.” Rather, it’s because I believe in the value of exploring the questions below the question. In other words, I know, both in my gut and in my best reasoning, that there is a human question, applicable to our human condition now as much as it was centuries ago, that drives the formation of beliefs, hopes, longings, and ways of living. For April’s theme of salvation, some of those questions-below-the-question include: Why have humans felt the need to describe, to name, to ask, what “saves” us? What is common to the human condition that makes us long for something better—for a more whole and healthy state, a happier way of living? 

          For us Unitarian Universalists, salvation is not about how or if we’re “going to heaven,” if heaven is seen as something apart from this world and this life. It’s about how we survive life’s daily challenges and biggest traumas. It’s about how, through it all, we grow into the folks we most want to be—the folks that our life-saving faith claims we can be!

          Sure, there may be less loaded words to use instead. I can promise you that we will rename some of our themes when we come back to them through the three-year cycle. But I hope we can help each other to think and feel through the word itself to its roots, and then use all that we find to build our wings. 

Next year, some of the transformational themes get even stickier—can you believe it? I will look for new names for these themes—and/or offer synonyms or “translations”—that will make them less likely to trigger old traumas. We’ll also try some new patterns to preaching and worship services; a better balance of “light” and “heavy” in Small-Group Ministry content each month; and more. We ministers—lay and ordained—will keep seeking ways to make these themes more meaningful, accessible, and truly transformational for all of us.

          Meanwhile, your own responses to these themes (see the “In Our Own Voices” column in the journal each month) prove that we are on to something. So I hope you’ll hang in there, finding your own ways to explore, to remain open or to open anew, to listen more deeply to yourself and to others, to have faith in your (and our) capacity to grow. Trust that we are, together, Unitarian Universalist to the core—because our faith is what we are making it, as well as what we have inherited. Roots and wings.

          It is a sign of our growing health and vitality that you are sharing your varied responses fearlessly. Please continue to do so in ways that are both authentic and compassionate, bold and inclusive, ways that lead to deeper conversations rather than shutting conversations down. Please continue to let me know what you are thinking and feeling about all this. I may not be able to respond to each of you individually—but your experiences will help to shape our life together. I guarantee it!

            And do take a look at Michael Pelizzari’s response to April’s theme, included in this edition. Our merry Band of Writers has a great time letting ’er rip on the themes each month—and that’s another way in which we spread our wings. Let us soar on together, my friends!


With heartfelt gratitude and much love,


Rev. Nancy




I’d like to share this by a member of our Band of Writers:


From the Band of Writers Theme of the Month: “Salvation”

What’s all this talk about “salivation”?
And all this praying to God for it?

These seekers must be dyslexic.

Pavlov had the answer
Not from God, but from dog.
Ring a bell and dog provides salivation.

–Michael Pelizzari


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Apr 03 2013

Wrestling with Salvation: The Human Hunger for Wholeness

Published by under Minister's Musings

“And then I learned to read.” During a recent talk at the California Theater, Anne Lamott – the quirky author of Help Thanks Wow, Traveling Mercies, and Operating Instructions – names the big turning point in her life. Like many of us in the theater that night, Anne grew up in a middle-class 1950s household where the Manhattans and martinis flowed like fountains and the family’s dysfunction hid behind glassy smiles and rigorous social “correctness.”
“Then I learned to read,” Anne Lamott says, “and reading saved me.”
Up in the balcony of the California Theater, I fumble as quietly as I can through my cavernous purse, searching in the dark for the small notebook I carry with me. Not there. Desperate, I grab a pen and write on my palm: “Reading = salvation.” As Annie goes on, my notes crawl up the inside of my forearm: “Help each other feel better 1950s style [not equal to] salvation.” “We’re going to find a space for you, too.”
Salvation – our theme at First Unitarian this month – is not an easy topic. I feel the same resistance, if not outright rejection, that many of you express (see “In Our Own Voices” in this issue). Picture this: Many years ago, a friend calls from across the country for help with a Stewardship Testimonial that his church has asked him to give. “What’s a Stewardship Testimonial?” I ask, pre-divinity school. My friend’s essay includes a line about “being saved.” Even over the phone he can hear my face scrunch. “What does that mean?” I ask crankily. “Saved from what? Saved for what, to what? Who gets to be ‘saved’?”
Some of us grew up with a religious interpretation of salvation that hurt. One Christian version claims that Jesus died to atone for the sins of humankind, thus granting his followers “eternal life.” But what does this interpretation say about the value of suffering?
This idea that Jesus’ death is Christians’ saving moment only came into favor during the Crusades, more than a thousand years after Jesus is killed. In Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker point out that in the 1100s, it became politically expedient for popes to persuade soldiers that acts of violence could be “sacred” and that death might bring its own reward. A few centuries later, John Calvin’s “doctrine of election” says that some folks are predestined to be “saved” while others are not. Oops, sorry, your name’s not on the list! And how do we know? Well, maybe by the way in which you live now—or maybe not. Don’t ask: it’s a Mystery. But you over there—you’re different, so surely not you.
Our Unitarian and Universalist religious ancestors just don’t buy these interpretations, because they don’t make sense, and they’re not fair. As Thomas Starr King famously quips (I’m paraphrasing), “The Universalists think God is too good to damn them forever, and the Unitarians think they are too good to be damned.”
What does this all mean?
So what does all this theological history, combined with Anne Lamott’s Baby Boomer story, mean for us today?
It means that we humans are always asking to understand why we suffer, why bad things happen to good people, and how we can live with more peace, joy, and authenticity.
It means that we 21st-century UUs are called to question and reframe how we find our way to wholeness. It means we’re not going to plaster over the hard stuff or deny the damage done by emotional and physical violence. Instead, we’re going to find the people, the stories, and the interpretations that ring true, that show us how we are “already all right,” just as we are, and at the same time help us to grow.
Most of all it means: “We’re going to find a space for you too.”
Welcome to a month of discovery and new connections!
With love for the journey and for each of you,
Rev. Nancy

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