Doug Muder writes a great article about being an introvert at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. Although he writes with affection and appreciation for the enthusiasm and commitment he encounters among fellow UUs there, he reminds us that we are a diverse people and that some of us struggle with the pep rally atmosphere of GA.
I am a strong extrovert, and I struggle with GA for the same reason, although my discomfort has a different origin than Doug’s. My problem isn’t the way that our General Assembly event privileges strong extroverted personalities, it is the way that the event frames the very mission of Unitarian Universalism, and particularly the way it defines “transformation.”
I have never gone away “transformed” by a General Assembly. I arrived with a set of liberal social justice convictions that I may have had affirmed and strengthened at GA, but I have never been “transformed.”
I have been validated.
I have been informed.
I have been educated.
And I have often been emotionally charged to engage in more action.
None of that, to me, equals “transformation.” Religious transformation, which I believe is the mission of any religious organization, is a far deeper, more challenging, intimidating and permanent work than getting jazzed up about a social issue at GA, or experiencing some fantastic “rah-rah UU” moments in huge worship services (“rah rah” sentiments always give me the creeps, actually. I think they play into our most immature needs and desires).
Religious transformation is not just about my awareness of someone else’s plight. It is first and foremost about my awareness of my own plight as a regular old screwed up human being. A sinner, in old-school church terminology! Or, if you prefer, my condition as a human being who needs daily to challenge herself to move beyond her own ego and keep prying her hands, eyes and mind open with a crowbar, because everything in the world wants to convince her that she’s awesome, she’s right all the time, and she should be comfortable at every moment. There is so much more transforming that I, and all of us, need to engage in. Being evangelized to get involved in social justice is just one very limited definition of transformation.
My God, the disconnect between our high UU aspirations around what we are called to do “out there” and our crappy behavior “in here!” And by “in here,” I mean the inner life, the life of community, neighborhoods, work place and family relationships, and the life in our congregations. You know I’m a church consultant and talk to hundreds of ministers every year, don’t you? You know how many stories of our incredible dysfunction and nastiness I hear, don’t you? Okay, to be fair, I am an unofficial mentor and (unpaid) consultant to church folk in a wide variety of traditions, but let me say that although UUs like to think of themselves as a particularly sophisticated and intelligent people, we ain’t either. What we are is particularly opinionated, mouthy and self-centered. Most of us think we’d be a much better leader than the person leading. Most of us hear an idea, and immediately have a better idea. Most of us listen “for” rather than listen “to.” We listen for things that we can disagree with, things we can refute, and things that will offend us. We do not like to listen “to.” We mistake hyper-vigilance for attentiveness. Most of us could sorely benefit from, as the kids say, “chilling.”
We don’t need to attract more people like that (like ME!). We need to attract more truly thoughtful people, more kind people, more patient people, more genuinely tolerant and accepting people. That’s the kind of person I want to be. I don’t need more fires lit under my furious, self-righteous, easily agitated posterior. I need a daily dose of “Honey, our first principle is NOT that we affirm and inherent worth and dignity of everything that comes out of your mouth.”*
It’s HARD!! Dammit! And that’s why I know I need church. Desperately need it.
Do we really think our Unitarian Universalist movement is limping and declining because we’re not committed enough to social justice? Do we really believe that our transformation from someone who doesn’t really care about immigration issues to someone who sends a check every month to “No Mas Muertes” and who protests Sherrif Arapaio in 110 degree heat is the goal for all those who consider themselves members or friends of our UU faith tradition? I would certainly be proud to be counted among a group who broadly makes such generous use of their money and time, but that kind of transformation is only part of what we need to talk about, open ourselves to, and promote.
I have heard the grumbles from some UUs: “we don’t do enough.” “We should be marching against war.” “We should be descending upon Washington, DC to demand gun control reform.” “We should be …”
WE are around 100,000 people in the USA. Total. There are dozens of humanitarian organizations and activist groups out there for Americans to join. Most of them share our 7 Principles and have, when you get involved with them, a kind of religious zeal to them. They require meetings, and organizing, and commitment, and heart.
What they don’t have is congregations. What they don’t have is institutional presence in communities. What they don’t have is a long history as a religious tradition. What they don’t have is the concept of covenant, or the act of weekly worship to remind them of the larger cycle of birth, death, struggle, sorrow, joy, celebration, sin, shame, reverence, awe, healing, learning, transforming and growing “into harmony with the Divine” which has always been the purpose of our lives in religious community.
That is our job; our calling. When people arrive at our congregations on a Sunday morning, they aren’t coming to find a group of social justice activists. They are coming to engage in religious community so that they can understand the deeper theological foundation beneath their instincts for justice, beneath their frustration with the world as it is, beneath their sense of longing. They are not coming to be transformed into protest marchers. They can do that through any number of other organizations.
It is not our job simply to grow activists but to minister to activists who are informed in their ethic of service and love by our religious commitments, our religious mission, and our religious principles. It is our job to help all who join with us find a deeper life, a life more abundant, and a way to articulate and live their deepest convictions. It is our job to discover life more abundant in responsible and mature ways, and to mightily resist the temptation to gather life-minded people in a self-congratulatory mode.
Because we are a church, we should gather in a spirit of humility, not pride and certainty. Because we are a church, we should broaden our definition of the word “activist” to include all who move beyond the littleness of their opinions, preferences and comforts and into the world as a helper, a healer, an advocate, and an intimate in the human struggle.
The young woman who bakes a cake for the new widow, then goes and sits with her in awkward, caring silence in the kitchen over a cup of tea, is an activist. If this act is new for her, and she is moving beyond her comfort zone, and she is learning to push herself beyond her own daily concerns and to think about how she might support someone around her (who is not the kind of person she would choose to “hang out with”), she is a religious activist. When she sits in church and thinks, “I swear, this week I’m going to actually do something for someone. I have to stop saying I’m going to, and just do it,” she is in a process of transformation.
The guy who hears at coffee hour about another guy who can’t find a job and asks the minister if he can start a support group for the unemployed — and he’s never done this before and he has never been the kind of man who thought he would ever attend a support group, let alone start one — he is an activist in the process of transformation.
The woman in the choir who, after years of protesting any Theistic or Christian language in the anthems, starts to realize that she isn’t upset by sacred music any more, and doesn’t find the need to censor or edit it, is in a process of transformation. She has done work on coming to peace with her religious past, or her assumptions about what God language means to everyone (and the damage she believes it does), and she is able to sing “Shall We Gather At The River” and appreciate it as a beloved old-school hymn… she is being transformed.
The group of people in the church who absolutely believe that the expansion of the parking lot and repairs to the roof should take precedence over the addition of the RE wing, but who take counsel with each other and decide, together, that even though they know they’re right, it might be okay to wait and support the RE construction project for now… they’re experiencing transformation, too.
The woman who hears a sermon on domestic abuse and goes home, picks up the phone and calls her minister to say that she is in an abusive relationship, and could they meet right away before her girlfriend gets home – she is also in transformation.
Any time we find ourselves thinking jerky thoughts in worship and admonish ourselves to stop being so mean and critical or judgmental: that is the work of religious transformation. It requires confession of short-comings, determination to obey the dictates of conscience, and willingness to change.
It is not our calling to change the world. It is our responsibility and calling to change ourselves so that we are better able to participate in the world in a way that does credit to our values, our principles and our heritage.
* Our first Unitarian Universalist Principle is “we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”