Two images from GA

Next time you look at UU World magazine, or uuworld online, really look at the photographs of General Assembly. Nancy Pierce, the photographer for General Assembly, produces some very fine images. It’s also fun to watch her work — she comes into an event, dressed in black, unobtrusively takes her photographs, and slips out before most people have even noticed that she’s there. Today I managed to get a photo of her taking a photo of Gary Dorrien before she slipped out of the room:


Dorrien held the audience spellbound for an hour, and at the end of his lecture, a crowd gathered gathered around to chat with him. In the photo below, he’s the man sitting on the platform at right. You can tell by his body language that he’s really enjoying talking with all these theology geeks:

Worship can erupt anywhere….

Check out this new blog on the Fellowship of Fools, which is “a new congregation, a congregation without walls, a home for Fools of the Diaspora, existing within the structure of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.” It also involves chocolate kisses, flash mob prayers, and blowing bubbles. And what I want from this blog is lots of photos of their “worship which can erupt anywhere.”

At Amelie’s

Carol and I are sitting at Amelie’s, a French bakery in Charlotte, N.C., that’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s after eleven o’clock on a Thursday evening, and there are lots of people here. At a table to my right, I can sort of hear two men talking about the theater. There’s a card game going on at aother table. There’s a couple who look to me as though they’re on a date. Two women sitting on couches are talking very seriously in low voices. That’s this room. There are two other rooms, the main bakery counter, and the outside patio. I’ve heard at least two languages other than English (Russian was one, and I’m not sure about the other). I’m seeing a lot of white folks, but there’s definite racial diversity here. And I’d guess that all of the people here are younger than Carol and me (that is, at least under 45). There is excellent wifi access, and I can see people checking Facebook and surfing the Web. We are sitting at a table with two laptops, a pear tart, a peach tart, and a cup of really good coffee:

OK. You know what the setting is like. Now, a lot of what I’ve been hearing about recently is how the shape of religion and spirituality is changing, and it’s increasingly taking place outside of traditional places of worship, particularly for people younger than me. If I lived in Charlotte, given that I’m something of a night owl, I have a feeling that I’d be spending a lot of time here. And if I were going to imagine a place where I’d want to do spirituality, this would be it. This pear tart can only be described as spiritual. Good wifi access, pleasant surroundings, interesting conversations going on around you — what more do you need?

If I had my way, church would look more like Amelie’s, and I’d be able to get fast wifi access and really good pear tarts and really good coffee there.

Hey, a guy can dream.

Yet another General Assembly conversation

Yesterday I ate dinner with Roy, a seminarian who is also a psychiatrist and a professor at Stanford; Helen, a retired minister who is a former college professor and one of the more incisive theological thinkers I know; and Don, a playwright who is also a staff writer and editor for NASA. (And before you ask, yes, I did feel a little out of my intellectual league.)

Helen said to Roy that she thought his insights into psychiatry and psychology would be of great value to Unitarian Universalism. Because, she said, Unitarian Universalists too often concentrate on the rational side of human beings. Roy said that yes, he thought Unitarian Unviersalism could improve on its understanding of human beings, and they talked about the huge unconscious power beneath the rational self. Don pointed out how Freud drew heavily on Greek myths to provide examples for his psychological theories, while he could have drawn on the Hebrew Bible — the story of Abraham and Isaac is certainly rich in psychological insight — but as a Jew who had rejected his heritage, Freud seemingly didn’t want to turn to the Bible. (I thought: yes, and that does sound like many Unitarian Universalists.) But then, Don pointed out that the Greek myths offered such rich material for Freud, he didn’t need to look beyond them.

And as I sat there listening to them expand on this idea, I wished I had the skills of James Boswell — I wished I could remember long stretches of conversation, and accurately report them. Books have their place, and online resources like blogs and videos and Web sites have their place, but listening to really good conversations — where you’re sitting at the table with the people who are talking, and where you could even speak up (though you don’t because you’d rather just listen), and where you can see and feel and hear the interaction between the people — is, to my mind, the best way of all to learn and grow as a human being.

Liveblogging the GA Opening Celebration

8:59 p.m. The opening service is over. Now it’s the GA equivalent of social hour — time to look for people whom we haven’t seen for a long time.

8:51 p.m. “We look forward to being a part of a vibrant and vital Unitarian Universalism fifty years from now,” the children say. Listening to, and watching, the children and youth speaking to us it occurs to me that while they might be around for the one hundredth anniversary of the UU, I most certainly won’t be there.

8:48 p.m. Anthem is going on. I’m looking around at people here in the hall. I see a couple of babies, and one boy that looks to be about 8. Now the anthem is over, and a group of children, youth, and young adults are speaking. “As children we are the youngest members of our communities,” say two children. “We are often the reason why our parents seek a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the first place.” And their words are greeted by applause and laughter — for after all, it’s very true. Continue reading “Liveblogging the GA Opening Celebration”

Ministry Daze, er, Days

Charlotte, N.C.

General Assembly hasn’t begun, but ministers and religious educators have already arrived here for professional meetings: “Ministry Days” for ministers and seminarians, and “Professional Day” for religious educators. I won’t say that the streets around the convention center are swarming yet with Unitarian Universalists, but when I went out to get lunch today I ran into Rosie and Marie, old friends from seminary, on the sidewalk, and Nancy, a minister from the Bay Area, while crossing the street, and I saw several other people at a distance whom I felt sure I knew.

Just after four o’clock, I went over to the Hilton Hotel to register for Ministry Days. There were ministers everywhere: ministers in sandals, ministers in seersucker suits, ministers in dresses, ministers in hip black West coast urban garb, ministers in Midwestern pastels, old ministers, young ministers, ministers all over the place. Some of them were people I have never seen before, some of them were people who looked familiar, some of them were people I once knew, a few were people I know quite well. Unfortunately, my brain does not allocate much processing power to my facial recognition software, so when I am in large groups of people I often cannot cannot process faces rapidly enough; as a result, I tend to wander around looking vaguely dazed and slightly bewildered (more so than usual, that is).

Fortunately, I ran into my old friend Ellen, with whom I served at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts under Hellen Lutton Cohen. Ellen had not yet eaten, and was looking a little pale, so we went right out and looked for a place to eat. All the cheap restaurants I had looked up on the Web seemed to close at five o’clock. We finally wound up in Halcyon, the restaurant next to the Mint Museum. Ellen told me all about the things they’re doing in her church in Chelmsford, Massachusetts — the successful evening worship service, the way she mobilizes amateur musicians within her congregation, their coming of age program, their youth service trips to Saint Bernard Parish south of New Orleans. Then it turned out that our waitress grew up on Nantucket, so she and I tried to figure out if we had any common acquaintances, but the people I know who live there are all quite a bit older than she. Then Carol joined Ellen and me, and we began talking about families. We walked Ellen back to her hotel, talking all the while.

By the time we got done, today’s program for Ministry Days was over. Yet though I hadn’t attended any official programming, I got more good ideas while eating dinner with Ellen than I get in most half-day professional workshops.

Pee on Earth Day is June 21

Don’t forget that Pee on Earth Day is June 21 in the northern hemisphere. According to Carol, clean water is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity in many parts of the world, so flushing urine (which is basically sterile) down the drain with a couple of gallons of perfectly good drinking water doesn’t make sense. Make a political statement tomorrow, and promote pee on earth.

More information, including proper urine/water dilution ratio for plants, can be found here.

Andy Warhol Robot, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Andy Warhol Robot by Nam June Paik

We spent last night in Chattanooga, and this morning we decided to visit the Hunter Museum of American Art. “Andy Warhol Robot,” a 1994 sculpture by Nam June Paik on loan from the Kunstmuseum, greeted us as we entered the musuem. The main body of the robot is made out of cabinets of early television sets; the original cathode ray tubes (CRTs) have been replaced by newer CRTs which display short video clips by Paik. Other robot body parts include cameras, film projectors (at least that’s what I think they are) canned soup, and a Brillo box sculpture made by Andy Warhol.

As we were leaving the museum, a woman and two boys, aged about five and seven, were standing in front of the robot. The two boys were looking up at it with great interest, and as we walked by, I could overhear one of the boys telling the woman some story that involved explosions and either monsters or robots.

Small “u” universalists are everywhere

Today I attended the annual Macedonia Church Singing, a group of people who have been singing shape note hymns on Sand Mountain in Alabama for generations. This is one of the few parts of the country where churches sing in four part a capella harmony from the The Sacred Harp, a four-shape note hymnal, in regular Sunday services. Thus, liturgically speaking it is one of the more conservative parts of the United States; they still conserve some of the old ways of conducting Sunday services that date back a hundred and fifty years or more.

At lunch I sat down across from a fellow who was also singing in the bass section, and when he found out that I was a Unitarian Universalist he grinned and said, “I’m a Christian universalist.” We spent the rest of the lunch hour talking about James Relly — when he found out I hadn’t actually read Relly, he said I simply had to do so — and about Rob Bell, and the Primitive Baptist Universalists, and Hosea Ballou. He probably knew more about universalism than I did, although I was able to tell him one thing that he didn’t know: that Abraham Maxim, one of the composers in The Sacred Harp, had been a Universalist.

It turns out that he belongs to a Methodist church, where he is a Bible study leader. When he became convinced of the truth of universalism, he offered to step down as a study leader, but his church thought it would be fine if he stayed on. I asked about his pastor, and he said that his pastor seemed to have universalist leanings, though of course he didn’t come right out and say so, he just never preached about hell.

You just never know when you’re going to run into another universalist.