The most bestest thing about liberal religion in 2011

Here it is — the most bestest thing about liberal religion in 2011:

1. I’m seeing less focus on administrivia and more focus on mission. I’m seeing less interest in clinging to power for no good reason, and more interest in developing greater spiritual maturation. I’m seeing more people smiling, and fewer people arguing.

In short, I’m seeing more and more religious liberals actually having fun while doing religion.

What could be better than that? Happy new year!

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 8

2. For two straight years, U.S. Unitarian Universalists have focused a good portion of their social justice attention on immigration reform. I believe some of this focus is somewhat misguided, e.g., on the national stage we should be paying more attention to Alabama than to Arizona. Nor am I particularly interested in immigration myself — personally, I remain most interested in working peace, poverty, overpopulation, and workers rights. Nor do I believe that the so-called “Justice General Assembly” scheduled for June, 2012, in Arizona is change anything.

But c’mon, Unitarian Universalists have managed to focus their attention longer than six months on one issue. That’s incredible. If we could do that more often, we might actually make a difference in the world.

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 7

3. This year, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) reported the fourth year of decline in religious education enrollment in congregations. This decline came after a couple of decades of steady growth. Worse yet, 2007 marked the highest number of births since 1961, at the height of the Baby Boom, which means we should be seeing an increase in the number of kids in our congregations.

Why is the fourth straight year of decline a good thing? Because now this is a trend that can’t be ignored, nor dismissed as a statistical aberration. Congregations are going to have to face up to the results of years of nibbling away at the infrastructure for religious education — cutting hours and salaries of religious educators, giving away religious education office and storage space to other age groups, deferring maintenance on classrooms, neglecting to place parents in leadership positions, and treating children and youth as a burdensome expense rather than as a central part of the congregation’s mission. And the UUA is going to have to face up to the results of cutting staff positions, producing uninspiring curriculum and other resources, not having parents in positions of leadership, andand treating children and youth as an extra expense rather than as a central part of our shared mission.

Not that I am silly enough to believe that congregations and the denomination are actually going to change their behavior, and begin treating children, youth, and their families as central to our reason for existence. But at least congregations and denomination can no longer pretend that they care about kids — no longer can they cover over the fact that they’re trying to make liberal religion into an over-55 community.

One voice

I’ve been meaning to do a transcription of the Wailing Jennys’ song “One Voice.” It’s one of those singer-songwriter songs that seems made for liberal religious services. But now I don’t have to do a transcription, because some nice person made a transcription-arrangement (for SAB, and in a singable key too), and put it on the Web here.

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 6

4. I have found more and more people are willing to look at religion in new ways: more openly, with fewer preconceptions. I believe this is because ours has become an increasingly secular society, which means Christianity is less and less normative, which means that more people are more likely to look at religion without Christian preconceptions. The political and commercial realms are still several decades behind the rest of society, and politics and commerce both still claim Christianity as normative of all religion.

But forget about politics and commerce for the moment. Within liberal religion, I’m meeting a few people for whom religion is yet another form of cultural production, similar to other forms of cultural production like dance, writing, performance art and theatre, film, music, etc. I find it enormously freeing to talk with people with this understanding — and exciting, too, for when I talk with these people, all kinds of possibilities begin to open up.

Helen Frankenthaler died today

I remember first seeing Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings, and not quite getting them. Pollock and de Kooning were macho men, and they flaunted their machismo in physical, almost violent paintings. Having spent a good deal of time looking at Pollock and de Kooning (and David Smith, and other first generation abstractionists), I had gotten the mistaken idea that American abstract artists had to put on a tough-guy attitude in order to succeed.

Frankenthaler just painted. After I got over my mistaken idea that abstract painting had to be macho, I came to appreciate the subtleties of her washes of color, and her supple drawing style. I never came to love Frankenthaler’s work, but looking at her paintings opened me up to better understand the quiet paintings of artists like Agnes Martin and Richard Diebenkorn, and the Southern Song painter Chen Rong who most famously painted the “Nine Dragons” scroll. No macho posturing, just deeply insightful painting.

Large-scale paintings like Frankenthaler’s — reflective paintings with emotional subtlety and nuanced color, often paintings that are of, or resemble, landscapes — provoke a profound mystical response in me. They take me beyond human concerns to transcendent plane. Maybe Frankenthaler was never one of my favorite painters, but she would make my short list of painters whose work you’d want to have dominating a worship space.

Obituary at Art in America.

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 5

The new year is getting close, and to finish this top ten list before the end of the old year, I’m going to have to

6. I’m not sure this has really been happening, but it seems to me there has been decreasing tolerance within Unitarian Universalism for anti-Christian bias. You know what I mean by anti-Christian bias: the willingness to explore any major world’s religion except Christianity; a fear of acknowledging that we once came out of Christianity; a willful blindness towards our Christian past and the associated refusal to use certain words (“God,” “worship,” “Jesus,” etc.) that remind of us whence we came.

We Unitarian Universalists have good reason to be anti-Christian: from our beginnings we got called heretics by other Christians, and a hundred years ago we got kicked out of various Christian clubs like the National Council of Churches, and in the middle of the twentieth century the Neo-Orthodox dismissed us. Even today, a scholar like Gary Dorrien can’t quite keep the scorn out of his authorial voice when he writes about nineteenth century Unitarians in his histories. So we got in the habit of thinking: Hey, if the Christians don’t want us in their club, why should we want anything to do with Christianity?

Yet though we have grown into something that is no longer a Christian denomination but something else (we’re not quite sure what), we still carry grew out of the fertile ground of the Radical Reformation, and of the English free church movement, and of American freethinking Christians. The roots of our commitment to social justice, the roots of our use of reason in religion, the roots of our belief that love is the most powerful force in the universe, all go back to that fertile ground.

Thus I have been pleased to see what I believe is a growing respect both for our Christian past, and for those among us who still claim the name “Christian.” Maybe we have gotten so far from Christianity, maybe we are so obviously no longer a Christian sect, that we can relax a little bit.

5. We have definitely made some real progress in preventing clergy sexual misconduct this year. Most of this progress has been made by the UU Ministers Association (UUMA), which is remarkable in of itself: ministers have generally been woefully bad at policing themselves when it comes to sexual misconduct. But the UUMA has begun to make some real progress.

In one example of progress, Rev. Deborah Pope-Lance was invited to give this year’s Berry Street Lecture, she spoke on clergy sexual misconduct, and hundreds of ministers sat and listened to her in rapt silence. Mind you, Deborah has been speaking out for years on the evils of clergy sexual misconduct, but it has too often seemed as though other ministers were not particularly willing to listen to her — what was remarkable was seeing so many ministers watching with apparent approval and interest.

In another example of progress, the members of the UUMA voted in June to approve a new amendment to the professional guidelines — but there was a sense that even the new amendment wasn’t strong enough, and so a committee has already drafted a new, stricter, amendment. One could be cynical and say that by telling clergy that they can’t have sexual contact with anyone they serve in their ministries, the UUMA is merely catching up with what is already the law in 27 states in the U.S. But I’m not cynical, because it would be very easy to ignore those state laws; and besides, my impressions is that the new amendment will be even stricter than those state laws.

Obviously, there is still lots of work to be done. I would love it if the Unitarian Universalist Association didn’t take quite such mushy stands on clergy sexual misconduct. I would love it if some of the Unitarian Universalists who work on legislative action would start actively pushing for laws against clergy having sex with congregants in the 23 states without such laws. But after years of very little progress in this area, I’ll take what I can get.

Rosy-fingered dawn
appeared in the east
to find neither bird
nor beast yet awake.
Last night’s candle still
burned, small and steady,
in the window, there
to guide something home.
I yawned, listened
to the holiday
stillness, felt the cold,
put on the teapot.
I’m pessimistic:
I don’t believe that
peace on earth, good will,
or even much love
will ever come to
this generation,
nor to their children;
just wars and hatred.
But still it happens:
Rosy-fingered dawn
comes again, starts us
on another day.


It’s winter; it’s supposed to be the rainy season; but it’s so dry that according to today’s San Francisco Chronicle, five Bay area counties have instituted outdoor burning. Not only have we had about half our normal rainfall so far this season, but the days have been sunny and the air has been drier than usual.

The soil in our garden is nearly as dry as it is in the summer time. When I water the broccoli and greens we have growing, the water quickly sinks out of sight. We try to water our garden with the clean run-off water from the shower, but the soil was so dry last week that the bucket of water from the shower was not enough for the broccoli; I had to fill up the bucket twice more from the hose.

Not working on Christmas? C’mon

I was talking with a friend of mine who’s a music director at a mainline Protestant church (no, not at a Unitarian Universalist congregation). “So do you have to work Christmas day?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said. “They’re not having services on Christmas day.”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

He was not kidding. “We’re not have services on January first either,” he said.

“I don’t understand churches that don’t have services when Christmas falls on a Sunday,” I said. “It’s the sabbath day, of course you have services.”

He nodded tolerantly at my ranting.

“You know,” I continued, “shutting down a church on Christmas day usually has nothing to do with theology, or with the liturgical calendar. It mostly has to do with the senior pastor’s convenience.”

He just grinned. “Maybe, but I’m just as glad,” he said. “It means I get to have two Sundays off in a row.”

“There is that,” I said. Though for my part, I like working when Christmas falls on a Sunday — the people who come to services really want to be there, and it’s always fun. (And yes, we are having services in Palo Alto at 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. on Christmas day, with the Forum at 9:00 and brunch at 10:30. Stop by if you’re in the area.)