Yesterday’s sermon is now on the Web site of First Unitarian in New Bedford at www.uunewbedford.org. Click on the link near the top of the page (and I didn’t give you a direct link because I’m hoping you’ll check out the rest of the First Unitarian Web site).
Just came back from a meeting of the brand-new Membership Development Committee here at First Unitarian in New Bedford. Some lay leaders got fired up about the possibilities for growing our congregation, and said, Hey let’s get together and talk about this. It was a great meeting and it got me thinking about a conversation I had on Thursday….
I was talking with Greg Stewart, the minister in the Reno, Nevada, Unitarian Universalist congregation. Out in Reno, they have nearly tripled in size in less than two years, from about 50 to about 150. Greg said something about the momentum they’ve built, and how it might be hard for them to stop growing if they wanted to… and I got to thinking….
My bet is that it’s hard to not grow a Unitarian Universalist congregation. We know there’s lots of people who long to hear our religious message. By some reports we already have more visitors per existing member than does a fast-growing faith like the Mormons. Logically, since we’re not growing and the Mormons are, we must be working pretty hard to keep people out of Unitarian Universalism.
I mean, think about it. When someone new joins a group you love, your initial inclination is to share your excitement to keep them coming back. You’d have to work hard to choke down your inclination to extend that basic human hospitality. It’s like inviting someone into your home, and then ignoring that person — which, if you think about it, would be draining. It takes an emotional toll to deny basic hospitality.
Therefore, it’s a lot less work to simply extend plain old hospitality to everyone who comes into one of our congregations. If we took the easy route and extended basic hospitality to all those newcomers, we’d grow quickly. Thus efficiency has become my new favorite argument for growing our congregations — it’s easier, and it’s less work, to grow!
A stupid Unitarian Universalist joke:
Q: Why didn’t the Unitarian Universalist cross the road?
A: Unitarian Universalists don’t cross anything.
Told you it was a stupid joke.
Thanks to Will Shetterly, I discovered the Political Compass Web quiz. The folks behind this Web quiz contend that the old way of designating people as leftists or rightists just doesn’t work any more — after all, how can you compare two leftists like Stalin and Ghandi?
So they add a second dimension to the left/right scale, creating a graph with left/right on the x-axis, and authoritarian/libertarian on the y-axis. That separates Ghandi and Stalin, because Stalin was an authoritaian, while Ghandi valued the individual conscience.
It’s a useful distinction for religious liberals. There are plenty of religious liberals who would be classified as politically rightist on the old scale, but feel comfortable as religious liberals. Could be that politically rightist, religiously liberal folks would score in the social libertarian side of the y-axis of the political compass — that would be my guess, anyway.
Not that I think the Political Compass Web quiz is particularly well-done (it’s far too U.S.-centric, for example), but it does provide food for thought. By the way, in the interests of full disclosure, I scored as “Economic Left/Right: -9.63; Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.67″ — I’m only surprised that I didn’t score much higher on the social libertarian scale. This might reveal a flaw in the Political Compass Web quiz formula, because I suspect they don’t take into account the value of voluntary associations and related institutions in maintaining social libertarian values in a mass democracy.
Carol picked up a bunch of funky magazines at “Newsbreak,” the store off Route 6 on Pope’s Island behind the Dunkin Donuts (“Over 7,000 titles”). Among the magazines she picked up is Out Your Backdoor: A Catazeen of Homegrown Adventure and Culture. The catalog part has a bunch of indy-press books including titles like Dream Boats: A Rare Look at Junks, Outriggers, Dhows, and More, and Momentum: Chasing the Olympic Dream (a bunch of Americans pursuing a gold medal in XC skiing), and Recumbent Bicycle, touted as “the only book about this booming and innovative field of bicycling.” The catalog also sells things like “Move-It” car magnets, which have large legends like “Paddler!”, “Geek!”, and “Bike!” — and which say in smaller type, “If you like me… take me… keep me moving! The social bumper sticker — Public property” –an interesting alternative to the usual hostile bumperstickers and ribbon-themed car magnets.
The magazine part of Out Your Backdoor is even more interesting, with a couple of longer articles and lots of little bits and pieces about “do-it-yourself outdoor culture” — like a reference to an ultralight movement in backpacking where you make your own gear, and a bit about Rivendell Bicycles, where you can still get bicycles that you can strip down and rebuild and completely maintain yourself. In other words, a look at some serious outdoorspeople who haven’t bought in to the culture of bright nylon and spandex which has turned the outdoors into just another consumer commodity.
Didn’t know there were any people like this left in the world. I wonder if Out Your Backdoor is a cultural anomaly, or if we’re seeing the beginnings of a reaction to mass consumer culture?…
Carol and I were just out wandering around downtown New Bedford for AHA! Night. We stopped in at Cafe Arpeggio to check out the open mic, and then headed down to Freestone’s City Grill for dinner and a drink.
Scene at Arpeggio: the scruffy fuzzy crowd (we even saw a scruffy Mohawk), mostly young but with some gray fuzzy beards as well, lots of hooded sweatshirts and a few studded leather jackets.
Scene at Freestone’s: hip young urbanites, smoothly coiffed, lots of tailored leather jackets.
Two very different scenes a block apart.
Veteran’s Day is coming up tomorrow, and so this Sunday I decided to preach about the concept of just war as it pertains to religious liberals. That meant I wound up reading Thomas Aquinas on just war, from the Summa Theologica.
What particularly struck me was Thomas’s three criteria for just wars:
In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged…. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Romans 13:4): “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil”; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Psalm 81:4): “Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner”; and for this reason Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 75): “The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority.”
Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says (QQ. in Hept., qu. x, super Jos.): “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”
Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (De Verb. Dom.): “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”
It’s amazing how current each of these three criteria sounds. I have heard variations of all three used in the ongoing debate about whether or not the Iraq war is a just war. The interesting question in my mind is to what extent can religious liberals feel comfortable with Thomas Aquinas’s thinking, especially given how much he relies on appeals to scriptural and ecclesiastical authorities (which is not really our cup of tea). No answers to that question, but it seems to be leading me in interesting directions….
Peter Bowden, who writes the blog Live from UU Planet, came out to New Bedford for lunch today. Peter and I are both talkative and pretty intense, we are both interested in innovation, and we both happen to care a lot about Unitarian Universalism. We had a great lunch together.
We both think that Unitarian Universalism is far smaller than it should be. I would also say that we both think that much of Unitarian Universalism is, well, stuck in mediocrity. Those two thoughts are connected. Those two thoughts relate to a hypothesis that goes something like this: “If you try something and it doesn’t work very well, don’t keep trying it. It doesn’t work well!”
The basic unspoken motto in Unitarian Universalism for the past few decades has been, “Don’t rock the boat.” (How ironic that we count among our religious heroes someone like Theodore Parker who rocked the boat so badly we realized we needed the new boat he had designed.) We try desperately not to offend anyone.
Peter gave me a book on marketing titled Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable,” written by Seth Goodin. A “purple cow” is something truly remarkable and life-changing (Theodore Parker was a religious purple cow). Goodin looks at the success of companies like Starbucks and Amazon.com, and says the way to succeed in business these days is to develop remarkable products. What’s the opposite of being remakable, asks Goodin? –being very good.
Goodin offers this case study in his book:
The French subsidiary of McDonald’s recently subsidized and publicized a report that urged the French not to visit fast-food outlets like McDonald’s more than once a week. The report caused a worldwide uproar, and the U.S. parent company professed to be “shocked”!
Is this a bad strategy? Perhaps by being honest (and very different) when talking to their customers, the French subsidiary is building the foundation of a long-term growth strategy…. By acknowledging the downsides of the fast-food experience, prehaps McDonald’s France is reaching a far larger audience than they could ever hope to reach the old way.
What would happen if you told the truth [in your marketing]?
In the spirit of being honest with “customers,” let me tell some truth about Unitarian Universalism:
Contrary to popular belief, when you join a Unitarian Universalist congregation, you cannot “believe anything you want.” You must believe, with all your heart and soul and mind, that love can transform the world. Contrary to popular belief, it is not easy to be a Unitarian Unviersalist. If you are a Unitarian Universalist, you will care deeply about making this world a better place for all persons, to the point where you devote your whole life to that end. Contrary to popular belief, Unitarian Universalism is not a comfortable religion that asks very little of you. Unitarian Universalism requires you to give substantial amounts of your time — like fifteen to twenty hours a week spent in spiritual practice, doing sabbath with your family, participating in worship and small group ministries, reading and study and reflection, using your gifts to help your congregation thrive — and substantial amounts of your money — like twice the amount of money you now spend each year on movies, electronics gadgets, and Starbucks coffee combined. And it will make you happy to give that time and money because your will be transforming the world with love.
You know, if we told these truths about our faith, we would upset some people who are now in our congregations but we would also probably grow like crazy. And thanks, Peter, for getting me all jazzed up about our shared faith.
Link to new series on marketing churches.
For the past several years, I have gone through late October and November obsessed with cranberries. I think it all started 15 years ago, when my partner Carol did the newsletter for the Northeast Organic Farmers Association in Massachusetts, and we were hanging out with Bruce Bickford who at that time managed Hutchins Farm in Concord, Massachusetts, then the largest certified organic farm in the state. Bruce said that he thought it was probably better to eat locally grown conventionally farmed produce, than it was to eat organic produce shipped in from California or some other far away place. That got me started trying to eat food that was in season. And at about that same time, Carol got interested in trying to always eat primarily produce that was in season, because it seemed like that’s what we were meant to do — it somehow didn’t seem right to eat citrus fruit from sunny Florida in the middle of a dark snowy February in New England.
Traditional New England cooking has always paid some attention to the seasons, at least with its use of fruits and vegetables. Cod might be good to eat any time of year, but in New England you eat apples and cider in the fall, squash and potatoes and root vegetables in early winter, parsnips in late winter, fiddleheads and dandelion greens in earliest spring, peas and new potatoes and salmon for the fourth of July, green beans and blueberries in mid-summer, crookneck squash and corn-on-the-cob in the summer, and then back to apples in the fall. And cranberries.
When cranberries first appear in the grocery store in October, somehow my whole being is ready to be obsessed by them. I’m ready for their deep red color, so red it’s almost black at times, like the leaves on certain October Red Maples, or on the Red Oaks in early November. I’m ready for the tart burst of flavor you get when you crunch them between your teeth, for I like best to eat them raw. The first time I found cranberries growing wild, I saw a spark of red at the edge of a swampy area, and I bent down to see what it was, that little bit of red caught in a tangle of leafless twigs and stems: a cranberry. I picked it and ate it right there, and it brightened up a dark November afternoon, and I ate another and another, all of the few I could find.
So I’ve taken to eating lots of cranberries mixed in granola in the morning, and even a small handful as a mid-day snack now and then. Sometimes when you eat them plain they’re so tart they kind of take you by surprise and pucker up your mouth and catch your breath, just a little, but I even like that. When the days are quickly getting shorter, and the sun keeps getting lower in the horizon, that burst of tartness is like seeing the burst of a last red tree in the setting sun on an otherwise gray leafless hillside. It gets you in your heart, and you might even gasp a little with the stark tart beauty of it.
For about two months, I crave and eat cranberries. They’re exactly the right food for this time of year, in this place. Fresh cranberries will probably disappear from the grocery store by early December, but that’s OK because by then I will be tired of them, and will have moved on to the soft boiled comforts of root vegetables: rutabaga, potato, kohlrabi, celery root, carrot.