I hankered for musical companionship in the kitchen very early one morning while making baked beans for the Crock Pot. We talk to our music-making devices now, so I said, “Alexa, play some happy music.” For some interesting reason, Alexa’s computer brain chose gospel music for me. Interesting, since I have never listened to streaming gospel music although I own a lot of it on old CDs. When a live recording of Shirley Caesar singing “Oh Happy Day” with a huge choir came on, I was indeed happy!
As I chopped onions and diced up bacon, I found myself in my own little amen corner, flinging the occasion bean to the ceiling as I lifted my arms in agreement with one contemporary singer who was getting his praise on, improvising testimonials along the lines of, “Today I am better, Lord, I am stronger, (YESSSS responds the choir) I am better (YESSSSS), I am stronger I am better because of You!”
It felt so loving and so encouraging to fall into the arms of the contemporary gospel message with rocking music: God is strong, God has your back, God has a miracle lined up for you, God is our rock and our redeemer, God is there for you at 3:00 in the morning when you feel like hell and your friends aren’t around, God is actively blessing you in this moment.
One song was a live recording that went on for many long minutes as the lead singer sang a litany of his blessings in a classic call-and-response style with a choral response of something like “God made a way.”
I was almost dead but You said ‘not yet!’ (God made a way)
My baby had a terrible disease but You healed her! (God made a way)
I was broke to my last dime Lord, and you put abundance into my life! (God made a way)
The live audience was going wild, cheering and maybe crying. I was on the verge of tears myself. It felt like water flowing over my parched spirit to be reminded of the many ways blessing shows up in our lives.
And then I thought about how this song would likely be heard by Unitarian Universalists at, say, our General Assembly.
My life as a UU leads me to assume that UUs hearing this song would be awkward with the theological message that God is personally intervening in people’s lives. God coming through for you? Not rational! (If you listen closely within our communities, though, you’ll hear a lot of New Age equivalents of that idea – we tend to reject this idea only when it comes in traditional theological language)
The other thing I assume UUs might critique as they sat listening to this song is its lack of inclusivity. This second point is, I think, even more central to Unitarian Universalist idetntity today than is rationalism. Let me explain: I think a lot of UUs would be fussy about someone singing about God doing things for him because God isn’t doing the same thing for everyone else, or even someone else.
“What about my friend whose kid didn’t get well? What about that person over there who is still broke and unemployed? This song might make them feel excluded!”
Unitarian Universalists who think this way are theologically co-dependent and stuck in a scarcity model of blessing.
For Unitarian Universalists who have become obsessed with pre-emptive hurt on behalf of others, one person singing about how God “made a way” will leave them looking around anxiously for the person whom God did not “make a way.” They do this because UUism has focused for so long on individualistic and even competitive models of religious thought and experience: I will go away hurt and excluded if my personal experience is not reflected in the liturgy, if my preferred language is not used, if my joy or sorrow is not affirmed by the community, if my style of music is not offered.
Can you imagine the spiritual poverty of a people of faith who would hesitate to uninhibitedly rejoice in one person’s recitation of their blessings because to do so might leave someone out or hurt someone’s feelings?
We are not a people.
When God offered a covenant arrangement in the very first instance of that concept arising in monotheism, the central point of the agreement was that those entering into covenant consented to be made a people.
Unitarian Universalists are not a people.
We are a group of individuals in a broad affinity group broken — and I use that word intentionally — into smaller identity groups, some intersecting in positive and mutually respectfully ways, and some in awkward or outright hostile relationship, and in these latest days, hanging on desperately to their historical privilege.
The identities are theological, generational, cultural, racial, sexual and gender- identity based, class, and ethnic. I’m sure I’m missing a few. Within our identity groups, we are all over the map in terms of emotional style and social skills.
Our Association is in turmoil. It is very, very bad. You can read about it at the UUWorld.org or follow any number of UU ministers on Facebook to be treated to a lively conversation, lamentation, healthy vitriol (yes, I think there is such a thing) and hard questions.
I doubt I have very much to contribute to that current debate but I am a scholar of covenant and I do have a lot to contribute about our understanding of covenant, which is in dire need of rescue from facile interpretation.
The first element of any religious treatment of covenant is that the people of God (or the Higher Good, or the Principles, or Justice, or Love, or whatever stands in for humanists and atheists as the transcendent referent around which we all orient ourselves in community) consent to be made a people.
Unitarian Universalists have not ever done this in any meaningful way, and recent shenanigans at the top leadership level make it abundantly clear that the Associational culture is entirely individualistic. The latest revelations that senior staff who resigned signed out with exorbitant severance packages in a time of austerity spending and cuts had me laughing in a very bitter manner. Well, there it is. These guys are gettin’ theirs. Former President Peter Morales, who resigned with just three months in his tenure, never even bothered to say goodbye in person to the staff who had served him for eight years. Phoned it in.
I hope and expect the next UUA President will take their covenantal obligations more seriously.
Here’s what I see:
Unitarian Universalists mistake enabling for grace.
We have an impoverished theology if we worry that one person’s extravagant thanks to God will harm or exclude someone else.
We conflate WASP emotional cultural norms for “covenantal” behavior, continuing to value and enforce niceness over goodness or righteousness.
We fake large group right relation and retreat to small, affinity group safe spaces where we can actually admit what we feel, tell the truth about how we have been treated, and do the real work of strengthening our souls for the next onslaught of hypocrisy and failure.
I have no prescription, just the usual joy and sorrow. Meanwhile, I’m singing.
PeaceBang will not be attending the UUA General Assembly in New Orleans this year.