Ferguson and the liberal future

I took a break from blogging and — knowing I wouldn’t want get back to writing immediately — prepared several evergreen posts to run this week. (I’ll write about a couple of things I found in Toronto next week.) Which is one reason you’ve not see me comment on Ferguson (or Gaza or ISIS) here

But since I tend not to write about current political affairs anyway, I was inclined to keep my own counsel about the killing of Mike Brown and the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri once I returned. What more could I say that many others had said? The (putative) Left was active in social media and print. And often said with a manic parroting, as if to counter and perhaps overwhelm the (putative) Right. I only went to show that Twitter and Facebook — one space-limited; the other limited by algorithm — is poorly suited for the needed discourse. It seems too much like shouting or sniping.

I figured the truth — or a reasonable likeness — would appear in time, and it was the autopsy reports and the appalling behavior of law enforcement and elected officials that signaled that Michael Brown’s death was irregular, unnecessary and suspicious. And that his death unlocked suppressed fear, hardship and resentment among black residents in the city; similar feelings and experiences among others (particularly other black Americans) elsewhere; and heightened concerns about the false-militarization of police forces.

I’m writing this in a particularly cool and formal voice, because I think that’s more respectful, and respect is important. Respect to the dead and the communities can remain even when respect to structures of authority are in tatters. While I expect we will learn more about Michael Brown’s death, I’m not optimistic that his case will have an adequately just outcome. A cool and measured tone, too, because that’s the typical liberal position of discourse. We’re not radicals, but that’s no boast.

American politics have tacked so far to the Right in the last three or four decades that liberals and the liberalish have been cast in the role of the Far Left, a position we neither deserve or can maintain. It seems to me the true Far — or perhaps more aptly, Deep — Left bases its politics out of the experience of deep, usually communal, suffering. Liberals, so far as I’ve seen, are usually separated from this experience by a generation or two. And we can admire the passion of the Deep Left, envious of its moral immediacy, and compelled by the sense of rightness it brings — but we cannot share it’s feeling. It’s out of our experience. (Though some with experiences may also want to hide it. Hidden addiction. Hidden violence. Hidden poverty. Hidden illness. That’s a matter for another time.)

But for most of us in liberal circles, the cares and concerns will be different. Those who need to survive will care about different things than those who have the room to improve.Improvement being that hallmark of religious and political liberalism. But the drive to improve can be burdensome, and if you’re trying to keep body and soul together, improvement is an unaffordable luxury.

The Ferguson affair is a challenge to the liberal experiment. Can we bear to feel helpless? Can we be, and not improve, when appropriate? Can we — should we — be liberal: a moderate, moderating force? Can we bear to say no to those to our Left when we’re bidden to go too far?

Lord, help us. But help the people of Ferguson first; the focus should be on them.

Ubuntu Linux for Ministry: a new feature, hopefully helpful

With all the talk about student debt, low salaries, missing employment, unwanted bivocationality and plain-old poverty in the ministry, it makes some sense to address ways of saving money as a way of making-do, because structural change (and success is not guaranteed) takes time.

That’s a good reason to put free-of-charge Ubuntu Linux on an old “obsolete” computer, to give it modern utility.

With concerns about online privacy invasion, copyright overreach and vendor lock-in, it makes sense to use an operating system that is backed by a community that takes your concerns seriously.

That’s a good reason to use free-to-use Ubuntu Linux, which has a community that takes these concerns seriously.

With brand-consciousness trumping utility, and the work of the ministry still being an under-served market, it makes sense to seek out an operating system that is easy (or easier) to build upon and responsive to active, if unprofitable, groups that create tools for their own use.

That’s a good reason to use free-to-adapt Ubuntu Linux, which has deep communities that address very specific needs, including those of congregations and ministers.

But Ubuntu, like all Linux versions, have a reputation — no longer fair — of being difficult or esoteric to install, maintain or use.

If you used a Linux version before, I recommend you try one again, as a group of more user-friendly versions have developed and improved in recent years. 

And that’s a good reason for me to start a weekly feature — each Thursday — demonstrating a feature or tool on the current long-term support version of Ubuntu Linux, probably the best used and most generally useful member of the desktop/laptop Linux family.


Micro-alterations in liturgy

One of the principles I brought into my morning and evening prayer practice is that I would read the prayers as printed until became accustomed to them. I would borrow their voice and let it become mine as I learned the internal logic of the services. I refused to be trapped by my own sensibility: a sensibility evoked with the joke about Unitarian Universalists reading ahead to see if they agree with the words of a hymn. Being a Unitarian Universalist is, too often, questing after fixing things whether they need fixing or not.

So I took time to listen. Now that I have a sense of this voice and rhythm, I’ve begun to make alterations. Very small one. (I’ll write about a replacement soon.) These are the micro-alterations that a person or congregation, familiar with a liturgical text, will make, possibly without planning and likely without notice. An appeal less to change, but a flexibility that keeps the prayer from drawing too much attention to itself.

  1. Small changes to gendered language. “All men” become “all.” Or “men” become “people.” Matriarchs join patriarchs. But I leave the “he” pronouns for God. Changing them would pull me too far out of prayer; instead, I pronounce these pronouns softly — more like”ee” — and keep going.
  2. Pacing some items — less timely, less resonant prayers, say — faster than others. You can always slow down when they’re needed.
  3. Inserting petitions into collects. That’s a blog post of its own.
  4. Stopping, and sometimes repeating, a prayer.

How do the Independent Catholics organize?

This is more a request than a blog post, and I’m reaching out to people in the Independent Catholic or Independent Sacramental movements, and particularly those in structured communities, like parishes or worship groups.

How do you organize your groups? How do you work between groups? In what way does your group function like “establishment” churches and which way does it not?

I would appreciate any feedback, and I think we generally have much to learn as religious institutions have their privileged place challenged.

So, why church at all?

As I’ve written before, we Unitarian Universalists need to organize new churches to replace those that shrink and die, and to reach those unserved by those that exist.

But to what end? To put it plainly, what is it that churches do that others couldn’t do better?

And it isn’t that the question is academic. The opportunity cost of organizing, staffing and maintaining churches is very high. Say, about a thousand dollars of giving per year per member, providing for some measure of paid minister and without a deep endowment, not to mention the costs of cultivating appropriate leadership. Are the existing churches themselves costly optional extras to, well … what’s at the core is the real issue.

Is it simply community, that fallback substitute not only for mission, but for deity itself? (To think about how often it is evoked as the source of inspiration.) If so, Unitarian Universalists become nothing more than a high-minded social club. Far from progressive, a bring-your-own theological model replaces mutual care and support for a sink-or-swim contest. Or as Jesus put it, “if your son asks you for bread, do you give him a stone?”

Moreover, I think that churches have meaningful reasons for being, and that many of them are deep and decent. But these are far from uniform, determined more by history, locality and grace than by the would-be guiding hand of a central organization.

That’s why I get so angry when congregational polity — the one constant referent in our history — is derided as counter-productive or obsolete. A successful appeal to centralize power has to prove that what it offers is more valuable than what’s lost. And since the common core is all but undefined, and the local, particular sources of mission are all but unrecognized, such a move is nothing but an avoidable disaster.


Brooks: on not under-estimating sin (before we “rediscovered” it)

Another passage from Elbridge Gerry Brooks’s Our New Departure, pages 85, opening his chapter on sin. I wish this was more simply written, but it makes me think of more recent preachments on the “re-discovery” of sin among Unitarian Universalists. But Brooks shows this dynamic isn’t new and cautions about flying from one pole of opinion to another — and then confronts us across the years: once you find sin to be real, what are you going to do about it?

It is the penalty of all reform that those who wage it, opposing one error or abuse, necessarily incur the risk of swinging into another. Perhaps this has had no more striking illustration than is furnished in the rebound from the exaggerated doctrines of the sacrificial theology concerning sin, — as to its infinite enormity, on the one hand, and as to the vindictive and horrible punishment by which only can God duly attest His hatred of it, on the other. Not to enter into the broad field thus opened, however, it is enough now to ask whether we, as a people, have not shared in this extreme rebound. Arraigning and controverting these doctrines, have we not had speculations among us, and even definitely declared conclusions, the inevitable effect of which, logically, has been either to make sin an inconsiderable affair, a slight disturbance which is to be beneficently overruled, or to deny that there is really any such thing? Have there not been periods in our history, indeed, when such theories have to no small extent determined the burden of our pulpits, and the thought of our people? And do they not yet quite largely mingle in the opinions that prevail among us?

But are such theories morally healthful? Are they favorable to quickness of conscience, or to a propelling and inextinguishable sense of obligation? Do they tend to distress us with a rebuking consciousness of the guilt of sin, or to induce humiliation and penitence on account of it? In few words, are they fitted spiritually to arouse and stimulate anybody? to fill anybody with a loathing and abhorrence of sin?

A prayer at eventide

I’ve moved from a traditional Universalist prayerbook’s evening prayer to vespers — a related service, but very different in structure and tone — because it is more meditative, more focused on the night, and night as a foreshadow of death. But considering death then turns us back to life, so the experience isn’t gloomy, but a solace.

This prayer speaks to me as the apex of vespers. That “…shall be heard by us no more” is hopeful: our future lies in God, and generations will live after us.  That’s hope.

O blessed God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Take us into thy gracious keeping for this night; and make us mindful of that night when the noise of this busy world shall be heard by us no more. O Lord, in whom we trust, help us by thy grace so to live that we may never be afraid to die, and grant that at the last as now our evensong may be: I will lay me down in peace, and sleep, for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety. Amen.

It’s not clear who wrote this prayer, or when. It is distinctly Universalist, but has echoes in other sources. It was written no later than 1863 — an age well acquainted with painful memories of the dead — and appeared in James Martineau’s Common Prayer for Christian Worship, so he may be the source.


How much church can you get for minimum wage?

I ask the question “How much church can you get for minimum wage?” not to suggest that low-waged workers should be segregated into their own parishes, but consider the proportional sacrifices and ability to give.

I routinely advocate for the formation of new churches: to keep up with population growth, to replace those declining and defunct, and engage with under-represented groups of people. But this doesn’t mean we have the same level of resources we did in the 1980s or 1940s (or 1880s or 1640s.)

One down side of a secularizing culture is that it’s harder to make a case for funding a religious endeavor, unless, perhaps there’s some attendant ethnic or cultural reason. And with a trend of declining wealth, stagnant wages and increasing student debt, the people who are left to contribute are likely to have less to spare.

We’re coming out of church culture of big asks, big sacrifices and big capital projects. But that just doesn’t seem realistic — certainly not in the same way — in the future.

Now, we look at millions of America who are just keeping body and soul together. The churches have to prove their value; double so with new ones.

So, how much church can you get for minimum wage? And more importantly, how will they work? And what will they do?

The church, in its history, has been impoverished, tested, challenged and troubled. I can survive, even prosper. But how?

Why I only write about Christianity in the UUA

It’s a bit of an overstretch — after all, I have an interest in Stanton Coit and denominational data generally — but I only write substantively about Christianity in the UUA. I write about worship in Christian terms. I write about mission in Christian terms. I write about connections among Unitarian Universalist Christians, and in ecumenical settings. I write about problems Christians have.

What about everyone else?

Well, for one thing, I know more about Christians than other Unitarian Universalists. There are fewer Christians, so there are fewer people to write. Many are personal friends. I am a member of a Christian church that’s a member of the UUA. And Christians make up a small minority among Unitarian Universalists.

For another, much of what I write applies to other Unitarian Universalists, especially since our habits and opportunities rest on a common foundation. If you’re willing to apply it to your own situation, you might discover some insights. (Christians are asked to translate meta-narratives all the time; it can be done.)

But the most important reason, is that I want to cultivate a particular voice that speaks consistently and predictably to and from the faith situation I dwell in. Unitarian Universalist Christians, while often spoken of as a singular group, really is remarkably diverse in theology, applied polity, politics and life situations.

There’s enough of a there there to give it some focus, to support the faithful and upbuild the body. I hope to do this by writing. I hope many people find this valuable (including non-Unitarian Universalist Christians) and it seems to be the work God has set out for me. It’s enough without planning to speak for or about those with whom I have a too-thin understanding.