Monthly Archives: December 2007

UU emergence: opening a conversation for 2008 and beyond

I know bloggers are supposed to do year-end reviews in their last posts of the waning year, but I’d rather look ahead and anticipate the new year. And what I see emerging right now is that religious liberals are finally taking post-modernism seriously. By “taking seriously” I mean that some religious liberals are doing more than just reading, writing, or preaching about post-modernism — they are actually trying out post-modern ways of doing church. (If you know nothing about this phenomenon, check out the Wikipedia article on emerging church first.)

For the last dozen or more years, some Christian evangelicals and a smaller number of Jews have been seriously engaging with post-modernism. They have been deconstructing and reconstructing the shape of liturgy and worship, experimenting with alt.worship, non-linearity, chanting, contemplative prayer, and integration of non-traditional arts into worship experiences. They have been experimenting with post-modern ecclesiology, trying out old-new forms such as house churches, minyanim. Post-modernism has been emerging in traditional congregational settings in mainline churches as well, where people have been experimenting with medieval and older forms of worship/community such as walking labyrinths, vespers services with candles, etc.

Through all this, religious liberals within Unitarian Universalism have mostly been sticking to the old, tried-and-true models they have been accustomed to for the past couple of generations. Partly this is because Unitarian Universalists already incorporate many aspects of what the emergent church people see as post-modern — we have by our very nature been more willing to accommodate ourselves to the surrounding culture; we have never had a hierarchy try to force us into uniform belief; we have long valued dialogue and alternative points of view; we have insisted on social justice work as integral to who we are since at least the late 1900’s; and we have been open to personal narratives as a way of doing theo/thealogy (as opposed to relying solely on systematic theologies).

Now it’s time for us to take the next steps. It’s time to let go of our dependence on the forty-year-old liturgical forms we got from second-wave feminism; and perhaps it’s time to question our basic Reformation forms of worship and become more aware that our Christian religious roots allow us to tap into a rich array of liturgical resources, dating back thousands of years. It’s time to let go of our over-dependence on hyper-rationality, and allow the possibility of trans-rational (yet not necessarily supernatural) ways of thinking and being.

At an organizational level, I’d suggest we need to move beyond mid-20th C. committee structures for running our congregations (since after all the surrounding culture no longer supports those structures — there are no more “wives” who can volunteer forty hours a week at our churches). I’d like to see us be more open to the possibilities of fully integrating house churches, CUUPS worship groups, and other non-traditional structural forms into our congregations (and while “small group ministry” is a baby step in this direction, we could go much further).

And I think it’s time to seriously question modernist notions that there is one form of Unitarian Universalism that is good for everyone the world over. Since we love them so much, we think that in order to be a True UU you must be able to recite the “seven principles” (which are a product of middle-class First World Unitarian Universalists from the U.S.A.), sing “Spirit of Life” (a second-wave feminist song that may not adequately integrate womanist and mujerista insights), and love the flaming chalice (which is a U.S. Unitarian, not a Universalist, symbol). Grand narratives about the “right way to do things” no longer serve us well.

All this suggests that we Unitarian Universalists need a network equivalent to the Christian Emergent Village, and Jewish Emergent. Notice I said “network” — this is not going to be a top-down hierarchically-structured organization; this is not going to be denominationally-sponsored; this is not even going to be a movement. It’s going to be a conversation of diverse people in diverse settings coming from diverse perspectives — who will come up with diverse solutions to the problems that postmodernism poses to liberal religion and religious liberals.

For the sake of convenience, let’s call this UU Emergence. If you want to participate in the conversation, post something on your blog (if you have one) and tag it “uuemergence”. If you post something on your Web site, include the word “uuemergence” so that search engines can pick it up. (If you don’t have a blog or Web site, then haul your butt over to and start yourself a blog for free!)

And keep your eyes peeled for announcements about a UU Emergence gathering at General Assembly — or even at your next district gathering — so we can all meet face-to-face….

Historical re-enactment

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Unitarian minister before he became famous for his writing and lecturing. When he was a minister, he preached for some months to the Unitarian congregation in New Bedford. So this morning, as a kind of historical re-enactment, I delivered one of the sermons he preached while he was here.

It turned out to be quite a bit of fun. The sermon still sounded fresh and powerful (although I admit I choked a little on the gender-specific pronouns), and it was moving to read it aloud. For the most part, I think the congregation enjoyed it, too.

If this is the kind of thing that interests you, and you want to know more, I’ve included some historical notes about the sermon below…. Continue reading

Emerson speaks

This Sunday, I’ll be preaching one of the sermons that Ralph Waldo Emerson preached while he was in New Bedford during 1833-34. In those years, Emerson’s cousin Orville Dewey was the minister at the Unitarian church in New Bedford; but Dewey’s health had been damaged by overwork, and Emerson came to preach here while Dewey took a sabbatical to regain his health.

I knew the Concord Free Public Library had the complete four volume set of Emerson’s sermons (ed. Albert J. Frank et al., Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1989), so I drove up there this morning. I went down into the Special Collections rooms in the basement, and Leslie Wilson, the extremely knowledgeable curator and librarian of the Special Collections, got the four volumes for me.

Emerson kept a careful record of which sermons he preached in which church. Many of the sermons he preached in New Bedford appear to be among his favorites, for he preached them over and over again, sometimes as many as fourteen times. Mostly he did not write new sermons while he was here, but merely dug out sermons written originally for his church in Boston, or some other Unitarian church. But it appears that he did write sermon no. 169 (on the text Psalms 139.14) specifically for the New Bedford church; at least, this was the very first place he preached the sermon, on September 7, 1834. I decided this would be the sermon I’ll preach this Sunday.

Leslie Wilson, whom I have known for years and years, was curious what I was working on. I told her how I was going to preach one of Emerson’s sermons.

“You’ll have to cut it down,” she said.

“I know, no one wants to listen to a sermon that long these days,” I replied.

“And let’s face it, you’re not Emerson…,” she said thoughtfully.

“No, I most certainly am not!” I said emphatically.

“He was known for being an absolutely wonderful speaker,” she said. “He could say almost anything, and keep his audiences enthralled.” We both knew the old story of someone’s uneducated maid who went to hear one of Emerson’s lectures on Transcendentalism or some such obscure topic. Her employers were surprised that she would go to hear a lecture on such an esoteric subject. Ah, said the maid, but when Mr. Emerson says it I can understand it.

Emerson’s sermon no. 169 is so well written that it will stand up to even my delivery of it. Right now, I’m going through the two manuscript versions of the sermon — the earlier version which must be the one he delivered at New Bedford, and the later version that he delivered at Unitarian churches in Plymouth, Waltham, Boston, East Lexington, Concord, and at the Harvard College Chapel. It’s fascinating to see how he changed the sermon, mostly for the better, although at times the earlier version is more vigorous. But in both versions, you can sense a great writer coming into his full powers.

What must it have been to sit in the pews of the old wood-frame Unitarian church on the corner of William and Purchase Streets, and listen to Ralph Waldo Emerson preach on September 7, 1834, less than two years before he would publish his book Nature? The New Bedford church had wanted him as their minister — Orville Dewey having announced that his health would not allow his return — but Emerson got out of the offer by saying that he could not in good conscience preside at the communion table, nor offer a prayer unless he was truly moved to do so. Instead, in October, 1834, he moved to Concord and began writing in earnest.

New index

It’s time for end-of-the-year improvements to this blog. With more than a thousand posts, finding relevant information on this blog has become difficult. So I’ve created an index, using tags to link the index directly to relevant entries. Entries from February, 2005, through February, 2006, are now indexed.

Your comments on the index are welcome, especially if you see things I’ve missed or errors I’ve made.

Vintage computers for sale?

John Pageless has “tagged” me with one of those Internet memes: I am supposed to write my own eulogy. Except there’s one problem: as a minister, I do not doubt that by the time I retire I will be so sick of hearing myself preach every week that I will attend the nearest Friends unprogrammed (silent) meeting for worship, so for once I can sit in complete silence on Sunday mornings, and not have to listen to myself or much of anyone else for that matter. Therefore, when I die, there will be no eulogy per se because the memorial service will be silent; and God willing, no one will be moved to speak.

Instead of a eulogy, I suppose I could write an obituary for myself. Before I get to that, though, I have to tell you the story about the old New England Yankee couple. The old man finally up and died, and his wife wanted to complete the arrangements as cheaply as possible: she had him cremated in a cardboard box, scattered what was left in the henhouse to avoid buying a cemetery plot, and managed to talk the local minister into doing the service for free, with no music because that would cost money. But the minister told her that she’d better run a death notice in the newspaper, so she called up the local newspaper. “Got to run a death notice for old Allen,” she said. “The first six words are free, and after that we charge you a dollar a word,” said the person at the newspaper office. Silence for a moment, then she said, “Allen dead, car for sale cheap.”

The local newspaper here in New Bedford doesn’t charge for obituaries, so Carol might be able to do better than that old Yankee woman. Maybe something like this: “Harper dead. Silent meeting for worship at —— Friends meeting, after which we’ll compost his cremains. Don’t send cut flowers, which are imported from South America where they can be grown with pesticides banned in the U.S. using workers who are forbidden to unionize, and then shipped to the U.S. using huge amounts of jet fuel thus worsening global warming. His vintage computer collection, including an orange iBook, an aluminum G4 Powerbook, a Mac Mini, and an original OLPC XO laptop, will be sold off (see listings on craigslist). His collection of vintage dead-tree books, including some 20th C. literary firsts, will also be sold off (craigslist!!). Also selling his ukulele and mountain dulcimer, not worth much & glad to see them go, best offer takes them away.” But Carol probably won’t be able to get anything for my car, unless she can get a junk yard to give her a few bucks for it, so that shouldn’t go into the obituary.

And what about you? If you had to write your own eulogy or obituary, what would you say? Or would you, like me, dodge the whole question?

Update: Based on a couple of email comments, I guess I need to explain that the above is an an attempt at dry New England humor. Death is considered humorous in New England Yankee culture.


“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”

The Great and General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony, May 11, 1659.


So much for winter

The latest news is that some scientists now believe the Arctic ice cap could be completely gone by 2013 (link). And the tropical disease chikungunya has appeared in Europe for the first time ever (link). Seems that in spite of the denials and unscientific pontifications of people like Rush Limbaugh and Georgie Bush, global climate change is real, and it’s happening all around us.

Today in New Bedford, after some snow and seasonal temperatures, the warm weather returned, with temperatures hitting 52 degrees F (11 C). A heavy rain squall has washed away most of the snow. Predictions are that high temperatures will range between 40 and 50 during the week ahead. All this matches the predictions for global warming in this region: snow during the “shoulder seasons” in early December and late spring, while the rest of the winter stays mild.

Right now, it’s 50 degrees and warm rain is pounding on my skylight. This is not the New England I grew up in. It’s kind of depressing.

I’m dreaming of a wet Christmas
‘Cause global warming’s put an end to snow….