Friday, February 29, 2008

A Church Shopping Story

I'm fascinated by the news that 44% of U.S. Adults have switched religions or denominations from the one they were raised. Peacebang features a round-up of the news and surrounding UU Blog buzz here. Shopping in general is so ubiquitous in this country that it's no surprise to me that folks religion-shop!

I've heard a number of church-shopping escapades, but a story I heard at General Assembly let me know how vital it is for our congregations to have a strong campus and community presence: A woman told me that she had attended college in Madison in the early 1950's. She church-shopped many, many Sundays, usually arriving back at her dorm in tears because everywhere she went, church was all about narrowness, set beliefs and creeds. This college student had no idea that Madison had a Unitarian church. In 1951, First Unitarian Society of Madison moved from downtown into a building built by Frank Lloyd Wright out in the country (at that time it was out in the country -- now it's right across the street from the Children's Hospital). She told me that she has always wished she'd known about Unitarians back then, because it would have saved her some heartache.

This woman, bless her heart, did eventually discover Unitarian Universalism. She is now a minister's spouse and carries little cards about UUism everywhere she goes. When she meets young adults who seem to be seeking, she gives them information. Fifty years later, she remembers her failed search for a spiritual home and still reaches out to young people.

The fact is that FUS actually had a campus ministry program way back in the 1950's: it was called the Channing Club. Obviously, news of the program did not extend widely enough. With so many folks out shopping these days, it's more important than ever for us to be "out there": open, accessible and welcoming.

Let your light shine,

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Time Banking -- Social Change through Community

I'm a member of the Dane County Timebank. Time Banking creates social change by weaving communities together. Through a timebank, we create reciprocal relationships with those who live near us. It's very simple: for every hour I spend doing something for another community member, I earn one Time Dollar. Then I have a Time Dollar to spend on having someone do something for me!

Time banking is a way to create what happens naturally in communities with high social capital. Don Cohen, author of In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work, describes social capital as "the generalized trust and reciprocity that bind the members of human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible." Cohen was our keynote speaker at the 2005 Large Congregation Conference.

Yesterday and today, I earned time dollars by driving two women to and from a job skills class they must attend. They live about fifteen miles from the campus training center, so it would take at least 90 minutes via public transportation. It's a small thing, but having transportation provided made it easier for A and F to be at class on time and get home promptly.

I empathized with the ladies: it would difficult to get up at dawn and take two long bus rides to a strange place. The Madison Metro is great, but no matter where you want to go, you have to make a choice: do I want to arrive way too early or a little bit late? (I used to opt for being late, which meant I never heard any announcements at church!)

Today, A told me that her mother was hospitalized and may need surgery on her arm. I felt compelled to give her some wild rice soup. A very small gesture, but it felt good to do that.

Prayers for health and healing,

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Secret to Being Incredible

How do we become incredible? It's easy. All we need to do is lower our standards! Think about it: any day we wake up alive is automatically an incredible day. If you not only woke up, but got dressed, had something to eat and looked outside (or went outside), that is quite incredible. I first learned this from Steve Wilson.

The main reason I love celebratory worship services is that when I attend a service and look around at all the others who are also attending, I'm often ready to celebrate the fact that we made it to church! We surmounted all the obstacles: transportation, parking, weather conditions, work obligations, family needs and obligations, sleep deprivation, disabilities, illness, injury and more.

Did I mention flannel sheets that grab hold of us and won't let go, pets that pin us to our beds, and power outages?



Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Praying to the Spirit of Life

Wayne Arnason & Kathleen Rolenz's "Praying as Unitarian Universalists: How can we pray with integrity, grace, power, and purpose?" is an excellent article. I found the section about invoking the language of reverence by addressing prayers to Something quite enlightening. According to Arnason & Rolenz, UUs sometimes get too caught up in invoking everything we possibly can, spending too much time naming the Something to which/whom we are addressing our prayers.

I wrote a short spoken meditation based on my favorite name for God, Oneness, Energy:

We sometimes begin a meditation or prayer with these words: Spirit Of Life And Love, Whom We Know By Many Names

What exactly is the spirit of life? Perhaps, at its most basic level, it is Breath. We can concentrate on our breath, the in-breath and the out-breath.

Feeling calmer and more centered with each cycle.

I feel the spirit of life within me. Know that the spirit of life is within you. When we come together, this Spirit is within and around us.

What exactly is the spirit of love? Perhaps, at its most basic level, it is a Heartbeat. When we are still, we can be mindful of our hearts, feeling them beating.

I feel the spirit of love within me. Know that you are surrounded by the heartbeats of others, surrounded and uplifted by the spirit of love.

Know that the spirit of life is within you.
Know that the spirit of love is within you.

May it be so,

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Skit about the Annual Pledge Campaign?

This weekend, something very new and different happened at my UU congregation: we presented a humorous skit during all three worship services -- with adults playing all the roles! This is unheard of for many large congregations, where a skit could happen in August or at a special intergenerational service, but would include children and youth.

I wrote this skit about our annual pledge campaign, daring to cast myself and three other grown-ups in the roles. Because the skit characters are four adult members having a conversation about pledging, I decided the actors should actually be adult members of our congregation. (Plus, someone else wrote a different skit, to be presented next weekend by groups of youth.)

We get to have all this fun because members of the annual pledge committee set the intention of a lighthearted approach to the campaign. The committee asked a member who is a good actor to write a skit. He didn't have time, so asked a different actor-member to do it, but she didn't have time, either. Meanwhile, I had a skit idea, so approached the committee independently. Suddenly, I had permission to write it! Hooray!

As all of our weekend worship services must be "excellent," our three ministers approved my skit's script. In past years, lay people who gave short testimonials didn't need them approved. But because last year's pledge testimonials failed to include any mention of pledging, this changed.

We presented the skit at all three worship services to rave reviews by the congregation. Even the youth liked it! I've copied most of the script below.
The title is "Working on Balance."

A: Long-time member
B: enthusiastic member (Me)
C: Singer
D: New member

B: (To A) What meeting do you have now?

A: Annual Campaign Committee.

C: Yes, the Day of Promise is next month.

D: I’m not familiar with all our UU Holidays. What’s the Day of Promise?

B: The Day of Promise is when we promise to recycle.

C: It’s the day the Meeting House Chorus will sing “Pennies From Heaven.”

A: It is when we begin our annual pledge campaign -- the day we promise to commit, or re-commit, our resources to First Society.

B: I already re-committed! In December, I added to my pledge. We have several years left to pay, so I won’t pledge again until 2012.

C: That’s different.

A: (to B) C is right – you’re talking about your Capital Campaign pledge. This pledge is different; it is for our annual campaign.

D: This is so confusing. I need to sit down.

B: Of course! I forgot. Yes, our capital campaign pledges are for our fabulous new building -- growing right outside! Picture it, D -- 500-seat Auditorium, large fellowship area, lots of classrooms....(In raptures with hands in the air.) Aaaah!

A & C: (in raptures also) Aaaah!!

A: But our annual campaign pledges form our budget: our day-to-day operations for the next year: all our worship services and events, our social justice work, Children’s Religious education --

C: Adult RE
B: Chalice Groups
C: Three ministers
A: Lay ministers
C: Wonderful music program
A: Councils and committees

D: Everything we do, in other words?

A: Yes, well said!

C: I’ve been thinking about increasing my pledge this year.

D: I have to decide what to pledge. I’ve been a member for one whole month.

[A, B, C congratulate.]

B: Some of us give a percentage of household income, say 2-10 percent. Sam and I usually give 4%. It’s important for each of us to decide for ourselves what we can give, based on our means.

C: I think of it as “Put your money where your heart is.”

A: Years ago, I heard that most people could double their pledge and not feel a thing. So I tried it, but it’s not true that I didn’t feel a thing. I felt great!! I discovered that I can usually find money in my budget if I care about something enough. And now I've joined the annual campaign committee.

D: You’re a hero!

A: No, no, absolutely not. I’ve gotten much more from this place than I ever gave – FUS has been my anchor for twenty years.

D: Really? That’s great. But, with my finances, I don't know...once I pledge, do I have to start paying right away?

A: No, it’s for the next church year – July '08 through June of '09.

D: The fiscal year?

C: Academic year?

B: Congregation year?

B, C and D: (shouting) Society Year!!


This was my favorite part:
I had to put in this true story!

C: My most memorable moments have been when I’m singing in the Meeting House Chorus. Singing the Missa Gaia last April was my favorite.

A & B: (blissful) Aaaaah!

A: That was one of the most moving services I’ve been to. That whale song!

B: And the wolf! Haunting! (Pauses) Hey, remember back when a bat flew around during a worship service? I loved it. First the bat was over here on the stone. (hurries to one side, points, with the others following) Then it flew all the way over there. (scurries to other side, points, with the others following)

A: What was the sermon about that day?

B: (walks, points) During the sermon, the bat flew over here -- above the pulpit.

The whole congregation enjoyed this so much that I may explore the possibility of presenting more skits. According to my friend E, who formerly attended a periodic-skits-during-services congregation, we need a Playwright and a Producer to be successful. Finding actors is easy in a large congregation. Hmmmmm....

Friday, February 22, 2008

Answering Questions About God

A Coming of Age class interviewed me last Saturday about the process I went through to formulate my faith statement. What an honor! They even wanted us to read our faith statements, so I had the thrill of sharing my thoughts about the Big Questions. Speaking to the Coming of Age students reminded me of a glorious dream-come-true experience I had last fall:

I was walking on Library Mall (on the UW-Madison campus) when a stranger asked me, "Do you have a lot of opinions about things?" I answered the same as any UU: "YES!" Two young men were standing just off the sidewalk, the shorter one holding some sort of contraption. The tall man said, "We would like to ask you some questions about God."

Instant joy! The tall one, Jeff, clipped a microphone to my shirt while Eric lifted the contraption onto his shoulder -- it was an enormous camera. I could scarcely believe my good fortune: young adults were so eager to hear my views of the trancendent mystery and wonder of the universe that they were willing to film me!

But, guess what the first question was: Does He exist?! I immediately explained that God is not necessarily male, that whenever I hear the word "God," I translate that to "He, She, It." I explained that to me, God is an energy, a life energy that flows through all of us, as It does through all living things.

You know what Jeff did? He asked more questions! He seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say, listening as I explained my views on human nature and the nature of God-energy. I told them that I agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: the arc of the universe bends toward justice, that I think the energy is a positive energy, rather than neutral. Jeff even asked me what happens when we die, so I expounded on my current theory: we simply return to pure energy. Period. (After giving him the caveat that no one knows for sure....)

When the interview was over, I had to return the microphone, but other than that it was glorious to be able to state by beliefs and opinions without being interrupted or told that I'm wrong or scoffed at for finding meaning in the word God. Wow!

I was walking on air until I told S what had happened. He was instantly suspicious: Who were those men? Why did they ask those questions? Why did they film my answers? How will the interview be used? Gee, I had not thought about any of that practical application stuff! It wasn't important to me.

It's all about listening. In May, I'll be listening to our youth as they present their faith statements during our standing-room-only Coming of Age worship services.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

I'm a UU -- Unitarian Universalist!

We are now more than forty years past the merger that formed the Unitarian Universalist Association. Merger occurred way back in 1961 -- before I was even born! But many UUs have not caught up to this yet, referring to themselves as "Unitarians." Yes, Unitarian Universalism is long name, but UU is much shorter and easier to say than "Unitarian." More importantly, the term UU proclaims to everyone that we are aware of our Universalist heritage and its importance. Universalism boldly proclaimed that God is Love and that salvation comes to every person. We can be proud that one of the first women to become an ordained minister in this country was Universalist minister Olympia Brown.

Many folks say that they don't like acronyms, but acronyms abound in our language, especially when it comes to religion. United Church of Christ, for example. Do they refer to themselves as "United"? No. They use the term UCC.

How about African Methodist Episcopal, the first Christian denomination in this country to be founded by African-Americans for African-Americans? Do they use "African" when referring to their religion? No. They are AME. "African Methodist Episcopal" has the same number of syllables as "Unitarian Universalist."

Lutherans use acronyms, too. When liberal Lutherans want to make sure that others know that they're not Missouri Synod, they call themselves ELCA, short for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. ELCA, not "Evangelical"!

When I'm asked what religion I am, my answer is "I'm a UU -- Unitarian Universalist." I wish more of us did that.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

We Finally Get to Vote!

Today is our primary here in Wisconsin. I heard Senator Obama speak in Madison last week and voted for him this morning. My theory for why lots of Unitarian Universalists are ga-ga for Obama is that he talks like an excellent UU preacher! The Senator is UCC -- United Church of Christ -- our closest Protestant cousin. The words he uses, his cadence and use of repetition, his calling for justice, equality and hope, remind us of our best ministers and that bond of trust we form with them.

But I could be wrong....

Wisconsinites: Bundle Up & Vote!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Searching for a UU Partner

St. Valentine's Day honors a martyred holy man named Valentine who defied the power of the Roman Empire and paid with his life. His crime: he secretly performed marriage ceremonies for people whom the Emperor denied the right to marry.

In the third century, the Roman Emperor Claudius II had decreed that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, so he outlawed marriage for young prospective warriors for the Empire. Believing this unjust, Valentine defied the decree and was put to death in AD 270.

This Valentine's Day, I'm thinking of the single, committed Unitarian Universalists I know, both gay and straight. Many are young adults full of UU faith, wanting to keep our religious movement a large part of their lives. Do they dare search for a Unitarian Universalist partner/spouse? Would it be possible for a "spiritual, but not religious" potential date to become a UU? How about the unchurched, the formerly churched, the devout atheist? Let's face it, the UU pool of potential soulmates is quite small.

A friend of mine, eager to be married and have children, began to date a dogged anti-religionist. He referred to her small UU congregation as "that cult you go to every Sunday." I'm sure you've guessed the result: she left our faith. Some UUs partner with those who aren't hostile to organized religion, but would never become Unitarian Universalists themselves. A woman at district Leadership School said that she tried to find a UU, but ended up with a Catholic partner. Surprise!

My advice for UU singles is to introduce all your dates to a UU worship service, then spring for lunch at a locally-owned restaurant afterwards. I introduced four people to Unitarian Universalism this way! I'm proud to say that one of them is now a member of a large UU church in a state south of mine. Some people assume that seeing a dating couple at a morning worship service means they must have slept together the night before, but I believe that attending church together should be an early test -- date number three, perhaps?

It takes resolve to decide not to hook up with people practicing a faith that is quite different than ours. Even I had to refrain from telephoning a very sweet Italian Catholic! Knowing that it's risky to narrow the field, those who envision a UU wedding/commitment ceremony, taking adult ed classes together, dedicating children, singing UU hymns around the piano, or simply attending worship together ought to keep that dream for while. It's not impossible.

Some of my work colleagues thought I was way too picky to ever find a mate. More than one refused to fix me up with anyone after I made the mistake of sharing my criteria, which included not just UUism, but being a good cook, having liberal politics, an understanding of feminism, being comfortable with LGBT folks, not being too tall, being curious about life, willing to dance....Okay, it was a lengthy list. I've heard that you'll know you've found the right person because you tear up your list of criteria!

For me, a small miracle occurred: I fell in love with a Unitarian Universalist friend. We were such good friends, see, that we decided to share an apartment as roommates. Many complex situations and emotions ensued, but eventually led to our wedding. Believe me, I'm not recommending this as a strategy, but being in close contact with someone reveals character in a profound way.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Fair Share Pledge?

A "Fair Share" pledge at my congregation is 2-4% of household income, according to the Annual Campaign Committee. What sad news -- it's not even 5%! 2-4% has been the recommended range for a number of years now. This year, if we give 3% or more, we get a copper pin as a reward, as a matter of fact. I'm guessing that Annual Campaign chairs and the Board are probably not giving more than this, or the range would be higher. Now I'm curious: what is our level of giving? How would I find out?

Perhaps a fairly accurate method of discovering this is to do a calculation based on the 2006 Median Madison household income: $67,000. Some people insist that the UU median would be much higher, but I'm not going there, because some members are students, some are unemployed and many are the only UU in the household. We have over 1400 members: 1000 pledge units, so 3% of the total income would be 2 million dollars! In reality, our budget is about half that amount.

Maybe 3% is our target because anything over that seems absolutely inconceivable! $2 million is an enormous amount of money, probably because I'm not used to thinking big. Given the chance, though, I'll bet we could discover how to greatly increase our positive impact in our community and the world at large if we had a budget of $2 million. We could also better provide ministry and growth opportunities for all generations of local Unitarian Universalists and the many more who would find us. How amazing that would be!

Perhaps having 3% as a goal isn't so bad, after all. After we attain that, 5% shouldn't seem so impossible. Changing the culture of giving will take a long time. It would be futile to suddenly ask all of us to increase our pledges by leaps and tithes.

In case you're wondering: My spouse and I give 4% to the Annual Campaign and an additional 5% to our Capital Campaign. Frankly, 9% to our church is as much as I can give. Any higher and the Chump Factor would kick in!


Friday, February 8, 2008

Welcoming Working Class UUs

How can we become better at welcoming working class or economically disadvantaged visitors once they show up at our congregations? How can we help them want to become members? I've been contemplating this for awhile, especially after reading Doug Muder's blog post.

It would be great to agree on a definition of what working class means in the US today before going any farther. I’ve been reading that the best way to define socio-economic class is by examining how much power and autonomy people have on the job. I’m all for that! Someone working in a law firm with the title “librarian,” earning $30,000 a year and attempting to please sixteen bosses (partner-lawyers) is not middle class. S/he may have a bachelor’s degree, but lacks power. Having responsibility and accountability without any authority describes many working class jobs.

Here are a few modest tips I wrote, tips for welcoming working class people when they visit our UU congregations. I’m basing these tips on my own experience in addition to the experience of the working class UUs I know. Even though I am now middle class, I am going to use the pronoun “we” when referring to working class people. This is partly because I first visited a congregation while working class, but mostly to demonstrate that many people with working class backgrounds find that they continue to identify themselves as working class, never feeling entirely comfortable with middle class values. If you are currently working class or were when you visited a UU congregation, I'd love to hear your critique of my little tips based on your experience (but all are welcome to comment, as usual).

1. Acknowledge that working class UUs exist in our congregations already. This is an important first step. If Unitarian Universalists continue to say that UUs are all middle class and above, all highly-educated and all privileged, they will immediately alienate working class people. Some of us like to dress up a little bit for church because we must wear a uniform or jeans on the job, but some of us like to dress casually because we have office jobs and must look professional at work. Do not assume that you have a working class divining stick and can tell just by looking.

2. Working class people do not have our identities wrapped up in our jobs. We just have to pay the bills. This means that when we are at UU congregations on Sunday, we probably don’t want to discuss careers or jobs, neither yours nor ours. Please do not ask boring questions like “what do you do for a living?” during our fellowship time. “What do you enjoy doing when you’re not here?” is a good question, but the wise UU begins by asking what we thought/how we felt about the worship service we experienced. Not just what we thought of the sermon, because a worship service is much more than merely a sermon! Then listen carefully, without judgment, to the answer. If we were not raised UU, ask what changed that led us here. If we all learn to approach everyone in a more meaningful way after our worship services, we will be more aware that Unitarian Universalism is not about exchanging business cards – it is about nurturing our spiritual lives.

3. We may be more likely to be eager to explore our gifts and talents and to learn new skills at church than professionals may be. Of course, if we’re working two jobs or caring for children this may be impossible. On the other hand, many working class people would never be allowed to chair a committee, run a meeting, collaborate on a fun project or make a presentation at our jobs, but we might want to learn how to do that at church, if the atmosphere assures acceptance, encouragement and some guidance. It may be that growing into a leadership position while being mentored by a lay leader is just what we need to feel empowered in our lives!

4. Be open to the possibility that we may be able to teach you something valuable about life. As UUs, we are invited to reject the dominant culture of individualism and ultra-independence in favor of relationships and interdependence. Working class people might not use those specific words to describe what we know, but especially if we’ve experienced poverty, we tend to understand how to create relationships and know that humans are interdependent better than some individualistic, upper middle class members. For example, because I already knew how to welcome people into relationship, create community and model shared ministry (which is interdependency at its best), I easily grasped the concept of Covenant Group Ministry. I went on to help found the program at my UU congregation and before long was the key person keeping the program going.

5. We may help you turn away from wealth acquisition and mindless consumerism and instead embrace sustainability. Concern for the environment and attempting to live sustainably go hand-in-hand with spending less while enjoying life. This coupling does not work for food (because locally-grown organic food is often more expensive), but for many other resources, the most sustainable way to do something is also the method that costs the least. Both sustainability and saving money require thinking creatively, exercising delayed gratification, feeling the fragile abundance of life and being grateful. Whenever we don’t purchase something, carpool or use public transportation, drink tap water instead of soda or bottled water, carry a re-useable covered mug for coffee (and water) and forgo expensive vacations and home expansion projects, we are caring for our natural resources. Shopping at secondhand stores saves money and keeps items out of landfills while revealing our consumer society in all its waste and excess. Our seventh principle makes our responsibility as consumers clear: plan each purchase carefully, with patience and creativity, reusing resources as much as possible.

6. Be mindful of inadvertently flaunting your wealth by discussing your latest or upcoming exotic trip abroad, your vacation home, your child-care provider or your housekeeper with a visitor or member, because it may seem like one-up-person-ship. I recently told another member what my spouse and I did for our tenth anniversary. Unfortunately, her response was to tell me about an anniversary trip to Venice. That ended the conversation.

7. Working class folks may be more likely to directly experience the "Spirit of Live and Love Whom We Know by Many Names" as a benevolent support in our lives. This may be a result of not feeling in control of our destiny or not being able to provide our families with every advantage. This often means that we are more comfortable with God-language and the language of reverence.

May the light within you reach toward another's light.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Race, Class and Gender (and Me)

Speculations about how voters are divided and grouped among differences of race, class and gender are currently rampant. I've heard that white working-class voters prefer Senator Clinton, African-Americans prefer Obama, women prefer Clinton, men prefer Obama, Latinos/as prefer Clinton. My guess is that no one will predict who white, heterosexual, middle-class men prefer, because the dominant group rarely gets dissected like the rest of us. I suppose they're the ones with the power to collate the rest of us, but see themselves as individuals. They're not part of a group -- they're independent thinkers! (Of course, many men have a keen awareness not only of all the above, but also their own powerlessness.)

Like many UU congregations, we're grappling with power, privilege and oppression. How do we, in addition to recognizing each human being's inherent worth and dignity, treat everyone with respect and deep compassion? Of course, in order to do that we need to be sensitive to societies' and our own biases and learn a new (old) way of being in community. I believe that Radical Hospitality is the way, but will leave that for another post.

There is hope for the future because change is happening! Anti-racist, anti-oppression initiatives are growing in communities. Young people today seem aware of the issues surrounding oppression and justice. More and more people do not fit into the assigned categories: those of mixed race, folks raised by parents of a different race, transgender people and those who move between different socio-economic classes.

Warning: What follows is my personal story of class fluidity. You may stop reading at any time. I'm white and was raised in a white middle-class suburb of Des Moines until age nine. Suddenly everything changed: my dad lost his job, followed by mortgage foreclosure, separation, and a move to an integrated low-income housing project in the inner city of Des Moines with my mother and three siblings. At that time (1970s), poor families received Medicaid, free school lunch and food stamps. An avid reader, I knew by age 10 that a poor girl had to do well in school and go to college, thanks to Maude Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy series and Emily of Deep Valley.

Working at a fast-food restaurant after high school to scrape up money for college, I realized after a few years that it would be impossible to save enough money. So I went to Iowa State University thanks to student loans and the Pell grant, where 98% of the students were middle class, with two parents at home: a working dad and a stay-at-home mom. Of course, no one could tell that I was different -- I decided not to wear my "Raised On Welfare" sandwich board. Because of white privilege, many people assume that all whites are middle-class.

I graduated from college owing thousands in student loans and found a late 1980's English major Mcjob earning six dollars an hour. Now I'm middle class! I earned a master's degree while working full-time, but what really hauled me back up was falling in love with and marrying a white, middle-class, straight guy followed by deciding not to have children. (Heterosexual and male were absolutes. Yes, I admit it!)


Wednesday, February 6, 2008


We interrupt this regularly scheduled blog to bring you the weather. Yes, we're having a blizzard in Madtown today! Our Music Director cancelled tonight's Chorus rehearsal, even though we sing this Sunday. If that weren't incredible enough, the city bus system cancelled all routes. My spouse walked two miles home after the bus he was riding got stuck -- and buses can plow through almost anything.

In addition to shoveling, my during-a-snowstorm tradition is to walk to the public library. Lots of Madisonians do that -- it's our version of the March of the Penquins. Today, however, even the library closed early! That's the most shocking of all. Wait, I just heard that the UW-Madison closed due to snow for the first time in eighteen years. Yahoo!

May all be enveloped in a white blanket of peace. (Not wet blankets!)
A Woman of the North

Monday, February 4, 2008

2008 Large Congregation Conference

I registered for the UUA's outstanding triennial Large Congregation Conference (in Louisville, Kentucky March 13-16). I've been to the Large Congregation Conference twice before and loved it both times! Great networking and learning, outstanding workshops, challenging issues to discuss, and (of course) inspiring worship services and wonderful music. One comment on the online evalution for the 2005 LCC states "Absolutely fabulous!" -- that must be mine.

Because it is geared especially to those of us at congregations of 550 or more members, the LCC gives us the chance to delve deeply in our growth areas. Just one of several issues we have at FUS of Madison is how to connect better with the many, many visitors we get -- especially when we can only be sure that someone is a first-time visitor if they wear a special nametag given out by a greeter in our congested lobby. Ideally, friendly members would meet and talk with those without a nametag, too, with the understanding that the nametag-less are not necessarily visitors, but could be. I'm beginning to wonder if we could offer adult RE classes on how to connect with and get to know each other in a meaningful way after a worship service. Class members could practice on each other (because most people in the class would be strangers at first). It's great when those who have been members for fifteen years finally meet for the first time, but it shouldn't have to take a decade or more to make the connection.

About the great networking at the Large Congregation Conference: It's enriching to have conversations with folks who have an understanding of "hUUgeness." At General Assembly, it is always clear that the majority of our churches, societies, congregation and fellowships have 100 members or less, so anything I say about my experience could sound boastful. Even "I sing in one of our adult choirs" draws envy. And, yes, I've been known to blunder: when a UU told me that her whole congregation goes on retreat together each autumn, I asked her which of her ministers attends the retreat. Whoops.

There's a myth about the Large Congregation Conference -- that it is only for ministers and paid church staff. This is Absolutely False! The LCC is for lay leaders, too. At our largest congregations, I believe this includes all committed members with a role in the congregation, not merely the Board of Trustees or other elected leaders. Besides, most positions in churches have two-year terms, whereas the LCC is on a three-year cycle. Best to go whenever you have the desire and ability.

What prevents more people from attending? Time, money and energy (the usual suspects). The registration fee, room and most meals add up to under $500, but all have to travel to Louisville this year. I can afford it, but am a privileged, middle-class member. Back when I was a young adult, I could not afford to attend any conference, not even the GA held in Milwaukee in the early 1990's. Still regret missing that....

Anyway, I highly recommend the LCC.
Today is Hug a Lay Leader Day,


Creating Snow Angels as a Spiritual Practice

Friday, we had a memorial service for a 90-year-old lay leader of my congregation. I managed to arrive at church early enough to make a few snow angels in honor of Jane H. Wood and still have time to change into a suit for the service. An ardent feminist, Jane H. did not hesitate to speak her mind and was much admired and modeled by the women (and men) who knew her.

We've gotten a lot of gorgeous snow this winter, so I've been making snow angels at my UU church whenever I can. Creating them in what I consider to be a sacred space is a wonderfully uplifting and peaceful experience for me. I watch the sky while I carefully make each one, intentionally pressing my hood into the snow and sweeping safely mittened hands to form large, graceful wings. And I always make sure to move my legs so that the angel wears a skirt, not bell-bottomed pants! To me, a snow angel symbolizes the joy of having a spiritual life in the north country, because creating a snow angel is a way to not just acknowledge mystery, but have fun with it in our natural world.

Of course, no one knows what happens when we die, but I don't think that any of us sprout wings and fly around like birds. However, that is a powerful image of something that humans have aspired to do for thousands of years. We imagine that being able to soar like an eagle would be exhilarating, joyous, a peak experience. Why, it would be a direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder which renews our spirit. It would open us to the forces that create and uphold life. Sounds like our first source to me! It's what I connect with when forming an angel.

Every time I've created a snow angel, I've encouraged other UUs to join me in this spiritual practice, but everyone I've asked has said no (to my continued astonishment). Even a little girl didn't want to make one! Instead, she insisted that we make snow butts, which means we merely sat down in the snow. Maybe in another year, she'll be ready for angels....

I first created an adult-sized snow angel when at a spiritual retreat with some members of my congregation. We went to St. Norbert's Monastery (near Green Bay, WI) and woke up to sunshine, dazzling snow and a fine temperature -- 18 degrees. I was raised Catholic until age ten, so this Monastery seemed sacred to me, except that retreatants were only allowed in certain places. I urged the others to come outside, but they said that it was too cold out (wimps). By myself, I found the perfect place for an angel and made it joyously, but realized afterwards that the angel was in the forbidden zone! I confessed to the manager, who seemed delighted. In fact, he went out and made a snow angel right on top of mine so that I wouldn't get into trouble.

May we all find joy in our direct experience of mystery, whatever it may be.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Finding a Religion that Doesn't Disrupt Your Current Lifestyle

"Finding a Religion that Doesn't Disrupt Your Current Lifestyle" was the cover story from the non-existent Onion Magazine awhile back. The photo was of my church -- First Unitarian Society of Madison. Bwahahaha! There is no article, only the cover page. Naturally, I have this photo with caption as my computer monitor wallpaper and still chuckle whenever I see it.

I suppose Unitarian Universalism seems from the outside to be an easy religion -- we don't have to believe in concepts that seem illogical, don't have to attend church, don't have a fear of hell, etc. The irony is that UUism extolls us to make dramatic lifestyle changes. Our seven principles call us into so many challenges, everything from how we treat ourselves and other individuals to how we care for our environment, fight for justice and equality, work toward a world community of peace, encourage others on their spiritual paths and make sure we're on one, too. In addition, our individual congregations challenge us to work toward the beloved community both out in the world and within our UU congregations. We are continually challenged to acceptance and compassion for everyone of every age. I find it difficult to do this with the acerbic one, the curmudgeon, and the condescending person.

Really living our faith can impact everything in our lives: everything we think, do, experience or purchase. My UU faith affirms, inspires, nurtures and challenges me every day.

May it be so.