Category Archives: Christian faith

What is it we become a member of?

Here’s another case one of those Facebook walled-garden discussions that really needs amplification and a public airing.

The subject is membership. The issue is on what basis can a congregation admit members? And in particular, by whose authority and volition. Is a person’s membership largely the will of the person who wishes to join? Or is it a status conferred by in an authority of the church: its governing board, say, or the congregation in meeting?

The answer you think is right says a lot about what you think the congregation itself is. In Unitarian Universalist circles today congregation has become synonymous with church, society, parish or fellowship. In historical practice, however, these were each different things.

A congregation is who met. The church is the company of believers, governed by spiritual leaders — the minister and the deacons — and it might shock you to know that many Universalist “churches” never organized one. The society is the parish without particular, reinforced geographic bounds, though that meaning is now especially obscure. Both served as a kind of moral, educational and religious (almost “religious but not spiritual”) public utility. Preference for the society/parish over the confessing church is the characteristic the Unitarians and Univeralists share. Indeed, share it so deeply that the distinction with church-as-company-of-believers is either blithely forgotten or hostily deprecated.

I contend it’s what gives us our curious something-for-everyone institutional chaplaincy feel. And it’s what makes some of our attempts to carve a unified spiritual community out of this nexus so awkward. We’ve believed the jargon, that we are a community of faith. That we have a “saving gospel.” (OK? What is it?)

No, we are more like a community of people with faith, than a community of faith. Not the same thing, and not a bad thing either. The history and particular friendships aside, it’s what makes it possible for me, a confessing Christian, to keep fellowship with other Unitarian Univeralists.

Today is Ascension

Later. What? It’s Wednesday? Long week. Tomorrow is Ascension.

Long-time readers know that I love the feast of the Ascension, when Christ took leave from his followers and figuratively lifted up humanity. Leaving the office just now, I chatted with Office Mate, with whom the subject turned to how well parsed the Wikipedia entry for Jesus was. (Don’t ask.)

I exclamed: “Ah! it’s Ascension and it’s too late to take in a service’” then briefly explained Jesus’ final appearance and leave-taking.
Office Mate: “I thought that was Easter.”
Me: “No, that was his resurrection.”
OM: “So he pulled an Obi-Wan?”
Me: “Not how I would put it. Ascension’s more like the end of Jedi.”

Not that I like to give the Lucas universe that much credit. Plus it’s arguably a bit like the Transfiguration, too.

Happy Ascension.

Today is Holy Cross Day

Today, September 14, is Holy Cross Day though some churches put it at other times. It marks the re-discovery of the True Cross by Helena, Constantine’s mother. It is a capital-B Big Deal in some churches. Its reach in Protestantism, however, has been limited. The observance is about the cross itself and (unlike Good Friday) not particularly the crucifixion.

I’m engaged for two reasons. First, it is churchly. The church’s searching and wandering is the motive and the cross is the reward. To my mind, it makes it more flexible to the churches’ need today, and is not simply historical. And second, what of this cross? Removed from Good Friday, we can focus on it and additional and imaginative meanings to be found therein. (Indeed, I do focus on it on Holy Saturday in the reading of the Dream of the Rood, but that’s my eccentricity.)

It’s worth at least one day a year to consider how something can be made for an evil purpose only be redeemed and exalted. Look, see and discover! An evil intent is not the end, but rather the grace of God which reverses fortunes and amazes the despairing.

And we could use more of that. Not simply for crosses, but human beings who have come to believe their selves or work are worthless.

Ascension Day 2011

As I mentioned the other day when the elect weren’t raptured into the heavens, I prefer to mark our heavenward walk on Ascension Day, which is today.

It is rich and complex with meanings and associations. Just one: that Jesus being raised up — this time in glory towards heaven — both pulls him out of the particular setting of time and space, making him a universal savior and yet re-imagines and transforms his other raising-up; that is, his crucifixion.

A Collect for Ascension

Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe that thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

The Free Church Book of Common Prayer (1929)

(I wrote about it more-than-in-passing in 2009,  2004, and 2003.)

Holy Saturday 2011

Holy Saturday touches my imagination because its the time that — in some strains of Christian theology — the dead Christ visits and ransoms from hell the holy dead. To my Universalist mind, it must have seemed more like a cosmic jailbreak (though I’m not one to put divine actions in a linear timeline.)

Something about the force of this liberation put me in mind of the medieval Name of the Rood, which I now read each Holy Saturday. You’re welcome to follow along old blog posts about it.

Recommended Reformation Day reading

Greetings, readers — My husband, Jonathan Padget and I are back from a deeply restful and energizing vacation in southern New England. Expect much of the blogging in the days to come to reflect this.

But today, among other observances, is Reformation Day. Ours is a reformation faith; indeed when examined perhaps Protestant if not always Christian. In particular, our roots — both Unitarian and Universalist — run heavily through the English Reformed tradition, which is to say we’re of Puritan stock.

It’s not very popular to claim affinity for Puritans these days, nor indeed for several decades. And we’re apt to say we’ve gotten past that, if it weren’t so evident in how we continue to organize and imagine ourselves. But misunderstanding (or even deliberately maligning) the Puritans won’t help us understand how we got here or what shapes our particular gifts to the religious landscape.

On the road, Jonathan quizzed me on the difference between the Puritans and Pilgrims, the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies and the like. Having earned a religious history degree before going to seminary, I set out the distinctions in the usual way, but I couldn’t get some of the dates in the right order and began to second guess myself. God, in his Providence, made available a little book in a little shop conveniently next door to the Universalist Meeting House in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which I bough and devoured. I commend this to all Unitarian Universalist ministerial students and forgetful ministers, particularly if you can also get it used for half price.

This book is Francis J. Bremer’s Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction (2009, $11.95) from Oxford University Press. True to the name, it is a quick read, and quite authoritative. Compact, too, and sure to keep people from bothering you on the subway.

The biggest takeaways are its readable historical review; a good explanation of a spectrum of Puritan worldviews, with respect to social change when having different levels of political power; and background for congregational polity. In particular, Bremer reviews the precedent of Continental refugee churches for the local selection of ministers. Also, I hadn’t known of lay and ministerial conferences that carry over today in the UUA, the various ministerial study groups and independent theological organizations.

A worthy read, also valuable I think for group study.

Two blog posts on mission and ministry

If you don’t keep up with the Quaker blogosphere, you might miss two valuable blog posts about mission, ministry and how these speak to generational change, resources and burnout.

Micah, for those counting, is a Quaker minister, with the Capitol Hill Friends worship group I mentioned last time. You can also follow them as micahbales and martin_kelley on Twitter.

Happy Epiphany!

Today is Epiphany, the celebration of Christ’s manifestation to the Nations, often represented by the three mages (“kings”). Since Universalist Christianity — it seems to me — is marked by recognizing the ever-widening bands of God’s grace, concern and love, the thrust of Epiphany and the weeks that follow are vitally important.

The light of this understanding — the star — is dim, but grows until typified by the Feast of the Transfiguration, where Christ’s purpose is typified by blinding light and his disciples trembling but resolute knowledge.