If We’re Talking “Real” Translation. . .

Filed under: Con Spirito — Jess at 12:54 pm on Thursday, December 17, 2009

I wonder if Garrison Keillor sings the literal English translation of the German Stille Nacht:


Music: Franz Xaver Gruber, 1818
Words: Joseph Mohr, 1816/1818

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.

Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!


Literal English prose
translation by Hyde Flippo

Silent night, holy night
All is sleeping, alone watches
Only the close, most holy couple.
Blessed boy in curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds just informed
By the angels’ hallelujah,
It rings out far and wide:
Christ the Savior is here!
Christ the Savior is here!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, oh how laughs
Love out of your divine mouth,
Because now the hour of salvation
strikes for us.
Christ, in Thy birth!
Christ, in Thy birth!

The Cathedral Stands

Filed under: Con Spirito, Grace Notes — Jess at 11:41 pm on Thursday, September 24, 2009

Word is going around that the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church passed away tonight, and I am sad. He gave his whole self to the service of Unitarian Universalism and left us with many gifts, not the least of which is this beautiful sermon, The Cathedral of the World, from June of 2001:

As Unitarian Universalists, we share a magnificent theological legacy. Think about how redemptive our first principles actually are, especially in answer to those who would further fracture an already divided world. Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from a common source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny. Both affirm that we are brothers and sisters by nature. Nothing that divides us can gainsay that which binds us together, for we are children of a single and abiding mystery. Our Unitarian and especially our Universalist forbears affirmed this as a matter of faith, Unitarianism by positing a single creator, Universalism by offering the promise of a shared salvation.

With this life-affirming legacy comes an attendant responsibility. To honor our inheritance, we must enlist our imaginations and energies in service of the One. I consider this a sacred calling. With appropriate passion and due humility, we are called to witness to the Unity that comprehends (in all its wondrous and essential diversity) our chosen faith.

Two obstacles thwart the fulfillment of this mission. First, Universalism is an exacting gospel. Taken seriously, no theology is more challenging, morally, spiritually or intellectually. Given the natural human tendency toward division, Universalists run the constant temptation to backslide in their faith. One can lapse and become a bad or lazy Universalist as effortlessly as others become ice-cream social Presbyterians or nominal Catholics. Think about it: actually to love your enemy as yourself; to see your tears in another’s eyes; to respect, even embrace, otherness, rather than condescendingly to tolerate or combatively to dismiss its independent validity. None of this comes naturally to us. We are weaned on the rational presumption that if two people disagree, only one can be right. This works better in mathematics than it does in theology; Universalism reminds us of that. Yet, even to approximate the Universalist ideal remains devilishly difficult in actual practice.

The second obstacle is intrinsic to Unitarian Universalism itself. Though named after two doctrines, ours is a non-doctrinal faith. By definition, we don’t even have to believe in our own name. We can exercise our freedom to believe whatever we will. We can be free from, for, or against whatever we choose. In a society that indulges it, religious freedom (a once precious commodity) is cheap and plentiful. We should be thankful for that. But we also must remember that when others are shouting fire in a crowded theater, freedom alone won’t put it out. To answer the call of our times, we must invest our personal freedom in the bank of mutual responsibility, that it may pay dividends for everyone. Only a respect for the worth and dignity of every human being and a shared commitment to the interdependent web of being of which we are a part-each a Universalist touchstone-present a saving alternative to the perils of internecine division in an ever more fractious world.

Given our commitment to pluralism, Unitarian Universalism should represent the perfect laboratory for modeling amity in a world rife with passions that stem from inevitable differences of belief. Often, however, we too muster more passion for that which divides us than we do for all that unites us. Ask yourself this. If, in our communities of faith, we find it difficult to unite under the banner of this one over-arching sympathy, how can we hope effectively to counter fundamentalisms of the right and left? Without a uniting passion of our own, how can we begin to answer the often-destructive passions of anti-Univeralists? Without a deep, articulate and lived appreciation for our own first principles, how can we persuasively contest the validity of contesting principles that divide, not unite, the human family?

Responding to these questions, I present for your consideration a possible new foundation for Universalist theology, one designed to underpin our diversity in a more intelligible and practicable manner. Though I place my full emphasis here on theology, everything I shall say has implications for our ministries of justice as well. Unless we put its implications into practice, Universalism is frivolous, self-denying and moot.

On a cautionary note, let me begin by noting that Universalism itself can be perverted in two ways. One is to elevate one truth into a universal truth (”My church is the one true church”); the other is to reduce distinctive truths to a lowest common denominator (”All religion is merely a set of variations upon the golden rule”). The Universalism I embrace does neither. It holds that the same light shines through all our windows, but that each window is different. The windows modify the light, refracting it in various patterns that suggest discrete meanings. Even as one cannot believe usefully in “everything,” to find meaningful expression Universalism must be modified or refracted through the glass of individual and group experience (which by definition will be less than universal). One can be a Buddhist Universalist, a Jewish Universalist, a Pagan Universalist, a Humanist Universalist, a Christian Universalist. On the other hand, one cannot in any meaningful sense be a Universalist Universalist; it is impossible to look out every window. Neither can one be, say, a Universalist Christian; when the modifier of one’s faith becomes its nominative, primary allegiance is relegated to but one part of the whole that encompasses it.

Try looking at it this way. Imagine the world as a vast cathedral. This cathedral is as ancient as is humankind; its cornerstone is the first altar, marked with the tincture of blood and blessed by tears. Search for a lifetime-which is all we are surely given-and we shall never know its limits, visit all its transepts, worship at its myriad shrines, nor span its celestial ceiling with our gaze.

The builders have labored in this cathedral from time immemorial, destroying and creating, confounding and perfecting, tearing down and raising up arches, buttresses and chapels, organs, theaters and chancels, gargoyles, idols and reliquaries. Daily, work begins that shall not be finished in the lifetime of the architects who planned it, the patrons who paid for it, the builders who construct it, or the expectant worshipers. Nonetheless, throughout human history, one generation after another has labored lovingly, sometimes fearfully, crafting memorials and consecrating shrines. Untold numbers of these today collect dust in long-undisturbed chambers; others (cast centuries or millennia ago from their once respected places) lie shattered in shards or ground into dust on the cathedral floor. Not a moment passes without the dreams of long-dead dreamers being outstripped, crushed, or abandoned, giving way to new visions, each immortal in reach, ephemeral in grasp.

Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of dust, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational, some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines through.

As with all extended metaphors, this one is imperfect. The Light of God (or Truth or Being Itself) shines not only upon us, but out from within us as well. Together with the windows, we are part of the cathedral, not apart from it. Together we comprise an interdependent web of being. The cathedral is constructed out of star stuff and so are we. We are that part (or known part) of the creation that contemplates itself. Because the cathedral is so vast, our life so short and vision so dim, we are able to contemplate only a tiny part of the whole creation. We can explore but a handful of its many chambers. Our allotted span permits us to reflect on the play of darkness and light through remarkably few of its myriad windows. Yet, since the whole is contained in each of its parts, as we ponder and act on insights derived from even a single reflection, we may experience self-illumination. We may also discover or invent meanings that invest both the creation and our lives with coherence and meaning.

A 21st century theology based on the concept of one light (Unitarianism) and many windows (Universalism) offers to its adherents both breadth and focus. Honoring many different religious approaches, it excludes only the truth-claims of absolutists. This is because fundamentalists-whether on the right or left-claim that the light shines through their window only. Skeptics draw the opposite conclusion. Seeing the bewildering variety of windows and observing the folly of the worshipers, they conclude that there is no Light. But the windows are not the Light. The whole Light (God, Truth) is beyond our perceiving. God is veiled. Some people have trouble believing in a God who looks into any eyes but theirs. Others have trouble believing in a God they cannot see. But that none of us can look directly into God’s eyes certainly doesn’t mean God isn’t there, mysterious, unknowable, gazing into ours.

Religion can be dangerous, of course, especially on a shrinking globe where, with discrete backyards a thing of the past, conflicting faith positions contest one another in almost every human precinct. The greatest challenge to theology today is the reactionary retrenchment of competing theologies and ideologies with mutually exclusive truth-claims. Though the recent spread of religious or ideological terrorism throughout the world compounds the danger contemporary true believers (or true-unbelievers) present, every generation has had its holy warriors, hard-bitten zealots for whom the world is large enough for only one true faith. Terrorists for Truth and God, not only have they been taught to worship at a single window; they also are incited to demonstrate their faith by throwing stones through other peoples’ windows. Tightly drawn, their logic makes a demonic kind of sense.

1) Religious answers respond to life and death questions, which happen to be the most important questions of all.

2) You and I may come up with different answers.

3) If you are right, I must be wrong.

4) But I can’t be wrong, because my salvation hinges on being right.

5) Therefore, short of abandoning my faith and embracing yours, in order to secure my salvation I am driven to ignore, convert, or destroy you.

Aristotle coined something called the Law of the Excluded Middle. As a logical certainty, he asserted that “A” and “not-A” cannot both be true at one and the same time. By the light of my cathedral metaphor, Aristotle is wrong, at least with respect to theology. His logical certitude oversteps the law of experience. Contrast one stained-glass window (its dark center bordered by more translucent panes) with another (configured in the opposite fashion). Though the same light shines through both, it will cast diametrically opposite shadow images on the cathedral floor (”A” and “not-A,” if you will). Even as we cannot gaze directly at the sun, we cannot stare directly into the light of God. All the great world scriptures make this point. No one can look God in the eye. Truth therefore emerges only indirectly, as refracted through the windows of tradition and experience. To a modern Universalist such as myself, this suggests that-since the same light can be refracted in many different ways (even “A” and “not-A”)-the only religious truth claims we can discount completely are those that dismiss all other claims for failing to conform to their own understanding of the creation.

One presumably impartial response to the war of conflicting theological passions is to reject religion entirely, to distance ourselves from those who attempt-always imperfectly -to interpret the Light’s meaning. There are two problems with this approach. One is that such a rejection deprives us of a potentially deep encounter with the mysterious forces that impel our being, thereby limiting our ability to invent and discover meaning. The second is that none of us actually is able to resist interpreting the Light. Whether we choose the windows that enlighten existence for us or inherit them, for each individual the light and darkness mingle more or less persuasively as refracted through one set of windows or another. Attracted to the partial clarification of reality that emerges in patterns of light and the playing of shadows, even people who reject religion are worshipers of Truth as they perceive it. Their windows too become shrines.

Because none of us is able fully to comprehend the truth that shines through another person’s window, nor to apprehend the falsehood that we ourselves may perceive as truth, we can easily mistake another’s good for evil, and our own evil for good. A Universalist theology tempers the consequences of our inevitable ignorance, while addressing the overarching crisis of our times: dogmatic division in an ever more intimate, fractious, and yet interdependent world. It posits the following fundamental principles:

1. There is one Power, one Truth, one God, one Light.

2. This Light shines through every window in the cathedral.

3. No one can perceive it directly, the mystery being forever veiled.

4. Yet, on the cathedral floor and in the eyes of each beholder, refracted and reflected through different windows in differing ways, it plays in patterns that suggest meanings, challenging us to interpret and live by these meanings as best we can.

5. Each window illumines Truth (with a large T) in a unique way, leading to various truths (with a small t), and these in differing measure according to the insight, receptivity and behavior of the beholder.

I am certain that others will refine and improve upon these principles. I offer them as much to promote an ongoing dialogue about the integrity and intelligibility of Universalism for our time as I do to answer the many questions Universalism poses to the inquiring mind. Yet I offer them with complete conviction. If we Unitarian Universalists are unable to recognize the ground that we share, we shall remain only marginally effectual in helping to articulate grounds whereupon all together might stand as children of a mystery that unites far more profoundly than it distinguishes one child of life from any other. To the extent that we fail in this mission, we betray our Universalist inheritance.

Amen. I love you. May God bless us all.

The False Debate

Filed under: Con Spirito — Jess at 10:25 pm on Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Recently in the Unitarian Universalist blog-world, much has been made of the printing of an advertisement from the Freedom From Religion Foundation on the inside front cover of our association’s magazine, the UU World.

Here’s the ad (PDF). Here’s a bunch of conversation about the ad, and how it offended many (me included).

For some, the negative reaction to this ad in our religious association’s magazine that features proposed bus signs with anti-religion quotations on them has spurred a debate over whether or not there is enough room in our non-creedal, open minded religious communities for atheists at all.

This question has been asked on both sides: “If you believe in God, why do you go to the Unitarian Universalist church when there are so many other places you could go? And, “If you don’t believe in God, why do you go to church at all, much less a Unitarian Universalist church?”

I really think these are the wrong questions, stemming from a false dichotomy: “Is there a God, or isn’t there one?”

The answer is really, simply, but oh-so-complicatedly, “Yes. There is, AND there isn’t.”

(Well, leaving out the fundamentalist position for now, because it is directly opposite to liberal theology in every way, and Unitarian Universalism is at the very least liberal theology!)

Consider this from Karen Armstrong, printed in the Wall Street Journal in response to the question, “Where does evolution leave God?” (emphases are mine):

Darwin may have done religion—and God—a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped—even primitive. In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.

But by the end of the 17th century, instead of looking through the symbol to “the God beyond God,” Christians were transforming it into hard fact. Sir Isaac Newton had claimed that his cosmic system proved beyond doubt the existence of an intelligent, omniscient and omnipotent creator, who was obviously “very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry.” Enthralled by the prospect of such cast-iron certainty, churchmen started to develop a scientifically-based theology that eventually made Newton’s Mechanick and, later, William Paley’s Intelligent Designer essential to Western Christianity.

But the Great Mechanick was little more than an idol, the kind of human projection that theology, at its best, was supposed to avoid. God had been essential to Newtonian physics but it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis and, finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God’s existence. This would not have been a disaster had not Christians become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource.

Newton’s God is the one that usually comes up — the idea that life could only be so complex that some kind of supernatural intelligence had to have designed it.

Most liberal theologians have come to the conclusion that God is not an intelligence, but rather a shortcut word or idea to talk about that which is bigger than the human mind can hold, the very essence of the universe that sustains every living thing.

What I find so sad is that many atheists cling to the idea of Newton’s God when they argue against the existence of anything that one could call God.

Consider this from “notorious” atheist Richard Dawkins’ response to the same question as above (emphases again mine):

Where does that leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God’s redundancy notice, his pink slip. But we have to go further. A complex creative intelligence with nothing to do is not just redundant. A divine designer is all but ruled out by the consideration that he must [be] at least as complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain. God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place.

Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: “Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn’t matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism.”

Well, if that’s what floats your canoe, you’ll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world’s peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists.

He plays right into the false dichotomy: God the divine designer exists, or he doesn’t. But until Dawkins went to this particular rhetorical device, pretty much everything he had to say on this question fit very well with what Armstrong had to say, from the “theist” perspective.

The real question we should be asking, in Unitarian Universalist churches and everywhere else, is not, “Do you believe in God?” but rather, “What does the idea of God mean?” The exercise from there would be to answer such a question without negative statements, no “God is not. . .” but rather “God is. . .”

Even with someone who identifies as atheist, perhaps especially so, I bet that conversation could be really interesting.

The point of such an exercise is not about coming up with “THE” answer, either, but instead to enrich our spiritual conversations with one another rather than staying behind our self-imposed barriers of thinking that we already know what someone of a certain ilk might say.

All of this branding of people as “Theist” or “Atheist,” putting people on either side of a hard and fast line without discussion, doesn’t do anyone any good. This false dichotomy seeks to separate us when religious community should be about bringing us together.

Mourning the Eclectic Cleric

Filed under: Con Spirito, Grace Notes — Jess at 11:27 am on Monday, August 10, 2009

I didn’t know Rev. Tim personally at all, but I greatly appreciated his writing and am saddened to hear of his passing.

Another reminder to not take a single moment for granted.

A Matter of Respect

Filed under: Con Spirito, Improvisando — Jess at 10:20 am on Monday, July 27, 2009

As someone with a somewhat unusual name that people rarely get right if they don’t know me, I’m sensitive to how I treat other people’s names.

Especially if they’re deceased, and more than especially if they died in tragic circumstances.

It’s a matter of respect. One’s name is a part of one’s identity.

So, my fellow bloggers, if you’re going to talk about the Knoxville tragedy of a year ago, please do this one simple thing: get the names right. It doesn’t take much to check the spellings, and a quick Google search will do wonders to check your facts before you hit “publish.”

Greg McKendry was killed a year ago tackling a gunman aiming a shotgun at children in his church.

Linda Kraeger was killed a year ago sitting in that same church.

Jim David Adkisson was the one doing the shooting, and is now serving life in prison without parole.

Simple facts, easy to get right, disrespectful and careless to get wrong.

So endeth the public service announcement.

The End of the UUA Presidential Campaign

Filed under: Con Spirito — Jess at 4:28 pm on Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I’m reading a bunch of criticism of the final worship service of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly, where we installed the Rev. Peter Morales as our 8th UUA President, and it’s making me a little bit nuts. It is notable that the most vocal critics weren’t there, and that watching the video doesn’t even begin to convey what really happened in that room.

I was not directly involved with either candidate’s campaign, though I did have an opinion on who I wanted to win — Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman. However, she did not win my support on the strength of her campaign, but rather on the strength of her 2003 Berry Street Address, “Images for our Lives,” which is something I go back to over and over again.

I didn’t have anything against Rev. Morales, except that many of his supporters drove me absolutely insane over the course of the campaign — though I can say the same for Hallman supporters. He just didn’t do much to inspire me. And honestly, neither campaign really did.

At General Assembly, the campaign volunteers on both sides were everywhere, shoving literature every which way. Most people wore buttons or t-shirts proclaiming their choice of candidate — me, too, but mostly just to keep the volunteers on both sides out of my face.

The discourse was civil, at least on the surface, but there was a definite division between the two camps, a palpable one. It was decidedly unpleasant.

Before the Ware Lecture on Saturday night, the winner was announced before a rather somber worship service billed as “Celebration of the Candidates.” My husband and I were seated on the far left side of the stage, having arrived a bit late, near a rather surly gentleman who was trying to save rows and rows of seats, actively berating people for wanting to, perhaps, sit in them, since they were near the front and empty, with no indication that they were reserved.

Just before the announcement, everyone around us got very vocally excited, in the middle of the beginning of the worship service, and there was Rev. Morales, looking prepared to give a speech. He was announced as the winner, he went up on stage rather awkwardly, because I don’t think anyone told him that he wouldn’t be speaking during this worship service, and the hubbub around us was enough to send us looking for someplace else to sit for the Ware lecture.

Being in that crowd of excited Morales supporters was not pleasant, to say the least. Even though I wasn’t all that invested in the outcome of the election, the “vibe” at that moment was one of smug satisfaction, of thumbing one’s nose at the other candidate and her supporters.

The next day, settling in for the closing worship, I was on my guard. Any sign of the same feeling I’d had the night before, and I was more than prepared to bolt out of there and go find dinner.

I am glad to say that my fears were ungrounded. The worship team did a masterful job of creating a space where we could celebrate our time together at G.A., celebrate the good things about our outgoing President, Rev. Bill Sinkford, and actively, prayerfully, and deliberately embrace our new President after a long campaign.

This was not a victory celebration. Much like a congregation installing a minister, Rev. Morales did not speak until the Benediction. The “laying on of hands” that is causing such consternation with “polity purists” was a simple, beautiful, authentic, deeply moving blessing, led by the Rev. Victoria Safford. That led into a prayer by Moderator-Goddess Gini Courter, with musical accompaniment that was exactly right for the moment, the gospel “We Pray” with choir and congregational responses, led by music coordinator John Hubert.

It was the most worshipful experience of General Assembly, for me. It was on my top 5 list of most worshipful experiences ever, really.

It was healing.

The complaint is heard that the President of the UUA is just supposed to be an administrator, not a pastor, and so what are we doing acknowledging this transfer of mere administrators with worship? When one looks at the duties of the office, vague as they are, sure, that could be true.

But that is so not the big picture. Leading our Association of Congregations is ministry, plain and simple. It’s a different incarnation than ordained ministry in the congregation, but it is ministry. And I for one would hope that the individuals who seek that office of President of the UUA are indeed called to serve our movement prayerfully, authentically, and with a deep sense of responsibility not just to the administration but also to the vision and mission of Unitarian Universalism.

Indeed, I would argue that anything an individual, lay or ordained, does in service of our faith tradition is ministry, and should be recognized as so — from handing out orders of service on a Sunday morning to representing one’s congregation as a delegate at District or General Assembly to serving as the UUA President.

And what I saw on that Sunday night on the face of the Rev. Peter Morales was a realization of just a glimpse of the sacred responsibility he has gotten himself into — something that I personally needed to see, after the campaign, whether I had voted for him or not. I truly believe that the installation service helped reinforce that the UUA Presidency, along with all of our elected offices, is not about a cult of personality, but about service and ministry.

And I am grateful for that.


“Pass it now, and we’ll fix it later.” Or not. . .

Filed under: Con Spirito — Jess at 6:21 pm on Tuesday, July 7, 2009

“Pass it now, and we’ll fix it later.”

This was a prevalent argument in favor of amending Article II of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s bylaws at General Assembly this year, the article that contains our Association’s “Principles and Purposes.” I am glad to say that it was not a successful one, though the vote on the revision was close: 573 for and 586 against.

Here’s the original, the proposed changes can be found here, and a color-coded comparison of the two documents can be found here (PDF). A good summary of the changes and the debate in the pre-vote assembly is here, as well as video of that assembly. Here’s a report and video of the Plenary session where the vote was taken (you’ll see me at time marker 1:06:30).

I was very much in favor of the vast majority of the new language, particularly the new format of “Covenant” rather than “Principles and Purposes,” and the new Inclusion section. I went to General Assembly fully intending to vote for these changes, and expected the voting delegates to pass it, which would have sent it to our member congregations for study and discussion before a final vote at next year’s G.A.

I heard some rumors of a “Save Our Sources” movement, determined to block any changes to the article because of the word “reverence” inserted in the new document instead of “respect.” I shrugged this off, thinking, “cranky Humanists. . .”

I really should know better.

Interested in hearing the thoughts of my fellow delegates, I went to the Friday evening assembly on the changes, and heard something I just wasn’t expecting: compelling arguments against the changes not because of one word or another, but based on the process itself. I also heard true anguish on the part of not just a few individuals over the consolidation of the Sources list, what now seems like an oversight ignoring the importance of each of those current six bullet points to our “hyphenated” UUs, valuable members of our congregations. I had not considered the contentious fight in the 90s to add “earth-centered traditions” to the list, with its accompanying text, which would now be a footnote in a sentence with Humanism and Eastern religions, written in past tense.

These were not things that bothered me, personally, until I heard real pain from real people over them — and not just one or two individuals, either.

The problem wasn’t “reverence” vs. “respect” for most people, though there were a few. The problem wasn’t just about wordsmithing, either. The main problem with the new document is that our current UUA bylaws required an up or down vote on the entire document, with no amendment.

Once the document was passed by this G.A. for study and discussion by the congregations over the next year, it still would not be amendable for its final vote.

If defeated, as it was, this same document edited to reflect current criticism cannot be brought back to the assembly for a vote for at least two years, for another two-year, two-vote, non-amendable go-around.

The process, mandated by the UUA bylaws, is broken.

Moderator-Goddess Gini Courter expressed some dismay and frustration about the whole amendment thing, citing many long hours spent with legal counsel and the parliamentarian to make sure they were all agreed about the way it had to be according to the bylaws.

If this document had been approved this year, we’d have an equal or greater amount of frustration next year, where a two-thirds majority would have been required for the revision to take effect. I doubt it would have passed, and we’d be a year later in the same place.

“Pass it now, and we’ll fix it later,” assuming a positive outcome next year, would have meant at least another two-year process to make needed changes in order for this document to both represent and serve our movement faithfully. So-called “picky details,” like the new Sources paragraph written in past tense, would just be there, codified in our UUA bylaws.

I felt and still feel that the positive changes in the revision would have been overshadowed by this very real harm done to many of our members, and that sending it out for review without any way to amend it before a final vote would have just added to the frustration with the process that we witnessed in small part this year.

In short, it wasn’t just about the “cranky Humanists.”

About that process — let me back up.

The group in charge of overseeing and writing the revision to Article II was the Commission on Appraisal, a body designed to go around collecting information on a topic and then meeting and distilling that information into a report for publication. Their report on “Engaging Our Theological Diversity” (very long PDF) is an extremely valuable example of their best work.

I would argue in hindsight, however, that the CoA was not the body that should have been put in charge of the Article II revision, because of their “observe and report” type of process. There is no real collaboration, beyond the individual members of the Commission.

When you’re looking at something that has become as fundamental to our faith tradition as Article II, collaboration is key. Collecting information by holding open hearings, and then formulating a report on that information is just not how such a document should be handled.

The CoA did publish several drafts of their revisions, beginning with a truly horrendous and pretty universally derided version including explanatory paragraphs below each of the seven principles, and they asked for feedback by survey and hearings. Another draft came out after that, with some fumbling around about “cultural misappropriation,” which also caused a lot of grumbling.

The final document was sent to the UUA Board of Trustees, who were allowed to make amendments (they made one, and I’m not sure if anyone actually knows what it was. . . please correct me with a source if you’ve got it — UPDATE: Philocrites has provided this info below), and who voted to place it in its entirety on the Final Agenda for G.A., where no one else could amend it even if it contained a grievous error.

Now I can see where the CoA and the Board wouldn’t want 1200 delegates to offer what could be thousands of amendments to this document, because that could be pretty cumbersome. But, I think there could have been an intermediate step between the CoA’s final draft and the Board putting it on the Agenda for the delegates, one that could still be taken: a one-year official review, overseen by an appointed or elected Article II commission, separate from the CoA, where congregations could offer substantive revisions/edits/amendments in some kind of official way to be considered in a final-final draft.

Then, put it on the agenda for G.A. in sections for the delegates to vote on rather than as a full document. I’ve heard rumors that it was possible for the Board to do this part this year, but chose not to — if that’s true, it’s a damned shame.

Our current Article II needs many of the revisions offered by the CoA, but not this way. If the process is broken, and harmful, any change made through it is tainted even if it is gravely needed change.


A Different Context for “Peacemaking”

Filed under: Con Spirito — Jess at 3:03 pm on Sunday, July 5, 2009

“Peacemaking” was the subject of a three-year study by Unitarian Universalist congregations, culminating in this year’s vote at General Assembly to approve a Statement of Conscience, drafted by the Commission on Social Witness with input from participating congregations and others. The draft statement, which can be found here in PDF form, walked an interesting line between supporting absolute pacifism and supporting those individual Unitarian Universalists who serve in various military organizations.

It was a fascinating debate, with about a million amendments offered during a mini-assembly to be voted on as well, and ended with the voting delegates of the General Assembly postponing the statement itself for another year of study.

I, however, as a delegate, was not there. Those who know me will find this strange — I love governance and Plenary sessions at General Assembly, and look down my nose at delegates who don’t take their responsibilities representing their congregations in our larger movement seriously.

But for this one hour on Friday afternoon, while the Plenary session debated the merits and implications of the language of this statement about Peacemaking, I was across the street at the Marriott Hotel, attending a commissioning ceremony for a dear friend leaving one of our Unitarian Universalist seminaries to enter the Navy.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that at the very same time as a heated debate on the very nature of our movement’s involvement in and responsibility toward our society’s role in creating peace in our world, one of our own was commissioned as an officer in our nation’s military?

This is just a single illustration of the need we have to engage fully with the issue of the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and the military, particularly with our individual members who are called to serve in various military capacities. The first thing we really need to wrestle with is the pervasive assumption that military=war, or military=violence.

The commissioning officer at my friend’s ceremony, himself a candidate for Unitarian Universalist military chaplaincy, took this on head first in his homily, relating his own experience in the Marines in Kosovo, where his unit neither lost a life, nor took one, in the fulfillment of their mission.

Now I personally don’t have first hand knowledge or experience of the military itself, except that many of my older male relatives have served in different ways, and that I have had the privilege of getting to know several Unitarian Universalist military chaplains and chaplains-to-be. But it seems obvious to me that when we as a movement do not engage our relationships with military institutions and personnel in an up-front manner, we end up doing more harm than good with our otherwise well-meaning statements on the necessity for peacemaking.

So, I’m extremely glad that the Peacemaking Statement of Conscience has been deferred another year, because as a statement of our Association’s position on these matters, it is gravely lacking. I can only hope that the Commission on Social Witness, and all of those individuals and congregations who are invested in creating this statement, can supplement their work with a more honest assessment of and engagement with the role of the military in peacemaking and our movement as a whole. They should start by talking with those who serve.

At the very least, I’d like to see a section in next year’s draft of the statement dedicated to our Unitarian Universalist military personnel and veterans, acknowledging that the call to serve one’s country in the military is not only valid, but powerful and commendable, and deserving of support by one’s faith community.


Some Random Musings

Filed under: Con Spirito, Improvisando — Jess at 1:05 pm on Friday, June 5, 2009

Wow, almost two months since I posted here. Seems that Facebook has taken up the brainspace that I used to spend on blogging.

Anyway. Here are some thoughts that have been rattling around my brain lately for your perusal:

1. It bugs the living crap out of me that Sonia Sotomayor is being called a racist for expressing pride in her ethnic heritage. The speech in question with the infamous “wise latina judge” remark is a powerful statement of the need for and immense value in diversity in the justice system. I suggest that if you haven’t read and really thought about the whole speech and are making judgments about her based on the totally lame Republican “racist” talking point, you should really just shut up.

2. In about three weeks, a new president of the Unitarian Universalist Association will be selected by the delegates of this year’s General Assembly, of which I am one. The two candidates, Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman from Dallas and Rev. Peter Morales from Colorado, are both very interesting and have good ideas for the future of our Association.

Their respective followers, however, are also bugging the living crap out of me.

Yes, I’ve chosen a candidate. No, I won’t tell you who it is, because I don’t care to hear from the “persuasion posse” currently making the rounds of the UU blogs. The only thing that could change my mind at this point is some kind of horrific scandal involving human sacrifice.

3. Pandora is really wonderful and has been making my working life much more pleasant than it was previously, because I don’t have to hear the same very small collection of things that iTunes’ “Genius” feature can manage to choose from my literally thousands of tracks, over and over. I’ve discovered about eight new artists that I will be purchasing full albums from in the near future.

And this application, PandoraBoy, makes it even better, since I don’t have to keep my browser open and can use my remote to pause and play and control the volume.

4. Summer vacation when the kids and the husband are suddenly home all the time doesn’t change the fact that I still have paying work to do. . .


Filed under: Con Spirito, Improvisando — Jess at 5:56 pm on Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Before anything can be said about what a website should look like, it’s important to talk about the structure of information, or the site’s architecture. After all, what’s the use of slick graphics if you can’t find the information you need?

Where I usually start this conversation is with a discussion of the site’s audience. Usually an organization is broken down into three categories: staff, the people who belong to or are served by the organization who are not staff, and people new to the organization. To go back to my current project, redesigning my congregation’s site, those categories are staff, members, and visitors.

Now, obviously there is some overlap of information in those three groups, stuff everyone looks for, and there are breakdowns within those categories as well: in the membership column, you have leaders who chair committees or serve on the board, on staff, you have ministry and administration, and so on depending on your organization’s structure.

When you’re doing a redesign, most of the information you need is already in place, but may need some reorganization. For my congregation, everything, and I mean everything, is linked on the front page without much focus on who is going to be looking for it. So, we’re simplifying our categories of information to allow people coming to the site for different purposes to go right for what they need, but also to allow for exploration of what our church is about.

Here’s what we have come up with so far, definitely a work in progress:

Front Page: Welcome statement, contact information, service times and current week’s service and Forum descriptions, any large special event coming up, link to current newsletter, search bar. Navigation is as follows:

  • For Visitors
    • Interest form that emails to Membership committee
    • Sunday Services: directions, Sunday schedule, order of service
    • Religious Education overview, links
    • Public Events/News
    • About Unitarian Universalism
  • About our Church: Mission and Vision, Directions
    • Governance and Leaders
      • Constitution
      • Church documents: Long Range Plan, Annual Report, Board and Council Minutes (current year only)
      • Financial documents (password)
    • Newsletters
    • History of our congregation
    • Online directory (password)
    • Rentals
  • Sunday Services: overview, order of service, past sermons and podcasts (link to Forum in the text)
    • Touchstones: Water Communion, Christmas Eve, Easter, Flower Communion, new members ceremony, child dedications
    • Worship Associates
  • Staff: Listing with pictures, contact, and office hours, link to individual pages
    • Minister: Bio, contact, office hours, link to Sunday Services, podcast, sermons, blog
    • Director of Religious Education: Bio, contact, office hours, Blog
    • Music Director: Bio, contact, office hours, rehearsals
    • Youth Ministry Coordinator: Bio, contact, office hours, Blog
    • Office Administrator: Bio, contact, office hours
  • Religious Education: Overview, information about visiting
    • K-5 programs with curricula and schedules
    • Youth Groups: YRUU and Uniteens, with schedules/announcements
    • Adult RE classes
  • Programs: Overview and list
    • Small group ministry
    • Social Justice
    • Music: Choirs, volunteer opportunities
    • Sunday Forum: overview, schedule, list of past speakers
    • Knife and Fork
    • Art in the Church: artist bio, photos, purchasing information
    • Book Group
    • Affinity groups: overview and list
      • Philosophy Group
      • Men’s Group
      • Ladies’ lunch
  • Events: This week at church, links to calendar
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