Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

UU Sermon: Epiphany of the Face
January 6, 2012                                                             
Unitarian Universalist Society, Sacramento, California
Roger Jones, Associate Minister
SLT 100 (I’ve Got Peace Like a River), SLT 38 (Morning Has Broken), STJ 1010 (Oh, We Give Thanks), SLT 315 (This Old World).  Vocal duet:  “Simple Gifts,” congregation sings third time.

Pastoral Prayer

Now I invite you to a time of contemplation in word and silence.  This time will be followed by music.

Please settle your mind and spirit.  Notice your hands resting. Notice your feet and bodies, resting in the Spirit.  Notice the breath of life coming through you…as I offer these words.

Spirit of Life and of Love, bless us, and bless this world with peace and healing.

Give us hearts full of gratitude for the gift of life, and the blessing of this new day and this new year.  May this new year come as an invitation, an opening to possibility.  May we strive to greet the days ahead with serenity and courage, patience and compassion, curiosity and wondering.  May we be surprised by joy.

As we seek a fresh beginning, we know we cannot ignore the past.  We may grieve damaged relationships.  Let us release ourselves from the prison of resentment.  May we take a few more steps in the direction of healing and freedom.

At this time we may be thinking of loved ones we have lost to death—those lost recently, and those whose absence we mark at this time of worship.  Pat Setzer passed away last Monday after a long decline; she will be missed.  Other names of those we have lost are on our hearts.  Let us now speak their names into the space of our sanctuary.

We reach out in care to those facing a family crisis, medical challenge, financial distress, heartache and loss, and burdens of the body, mind or spirit.  At this time, life is ebbing away from Bill and Dorothy, two longtime members and loyal elders of this religious community.  Let us say the names of any of the others who need our love, and whose faces we can see in our minds.  Either whispering to ourselves or calling out our concerns for others to hear, let us now speak the names on our hearts into the space of our sanctuary.

Life has its light moments and joyful milestones also.  We give thanks for the moments of celebration, and we invite those names or events to be spoken into the space of our sanctuary. Alice, going into Americorps for a year of service.  Hillary, going to Germany to study this semester. …

May one another’s good news give all of us reasons for joy.

Let us remember the divine spark dwelling within us, and let it shine.  May we notice the needs and hungers of others; may we hear the lamentations of our human family.  We pray for the simple gift of a world at peace.  We long for violence to end, and we mourn the lives lost and bodies injured… here in this region, around this country, in all parts of the globe.      When we can make a difference, let us reach out.  When we have the chance to speak out, let us say what must be said.  When we can offer help, let us extend a hand. When we need help, let us ask for it, even when our voice is trembling.

Spirit of Life and of Love, bless us, and bless this world with peace and healing.  Blessed be, and amen.



For Christmas I received a booklet of sticky notes entitled Commandments.  On the cover:  Moses in red robes, on Mt. Sinai, holding two stone tablets up in a lightning storm.  Open the little book, and on the left side, a pad of gray sticky notes, shaped like stone tablets.  Each one has the heading: “Thou Shalt.”  On the right side, a pad of notes that say:  “Thou Shalt Not.”  Could be handy for those with kids.

Though these two little pads hold more than 10 Commandments, this gift got me thinking about those commandments of Bible fame.   Jewish tradition is filled with commentaries, debates and stories about how to apply and live the Commandments, and which are most important.  And the Jewish teacher named Jesus got a question or two.

As reported in the Gospel of Luke, a religious scholar demanded to know what was most important for obtaining  eternal life.  “Well,” Jesus answered, “What’s written in God’s Law?”

[The man responded:] “That you love … your God—with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.  “Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”  Looking for a loophole, the man asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead [in a ditch]. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road…, but when he saw [the man] he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite [, another] religious man [,] showed up; he also avoided the injured man.   A Samaritan traveling the road came to him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, [cleaning] and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’   

“What do you think? [Jesus asked.]  Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”  “The one who treated him kindly,” the religious scholar   responded.  Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”[i]  [Luke 10:25-37]


This old parable has generated much reflection and many interpretations.  A striking aspect, of course, is the hypocrisy of the holy priest and Levite, passing on by the hurting man.  But the story has a big surprise after that.  In any story told among Jews, a Samaritan would be an unlikely hero.  Samaritans were a strange, different tribe.  They were hated and feared. They were OTHER.  To hear that one of them would be merciful, generous, neighborly, and self-sacrificing.  That would get your attention.  So:   Why did he choose to be a neighbor, to care for this man in the ditch who was from a different belief system and culture?

Perhaps the Samaritan had an epiphany.  A spiritual experience, a moment of insight.  Today, January 6, is called Epiphany in the traditional calendar of the Christian year.  One kind of epiphany is the manifestation of a divine being.  But another kind, a more universal epiphany, is a sudden revelation, an insight.  I call it a cosmic kick in the head.   It’s when we see what we didn’t see before, and we are transformed.

This helpful Samaritan—what was his epiphany?  Perhaps it was as simple as this:  he looked on the face of that wounded man.  He didn’t turn away, but looked.  The priest and the Levite were too busy to see him; they crossed the road.  The Samaritan saw him in the face.

The late philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has said that the face of the other is an epiphany.  It is a revelation.  It is a moment of ethical challenge.  He explains that our human bodies are vulnerable and life is precarious.  Our identity comes from our dependence on others, our dependence on one another.  At the same time, Levinas says, our human nature can be violent; we have an impulse to exploit, harm, cheat, even kill.  Yet we also have the power to be merciful, kind, and generous. The human face communicates our vulnerability, but it also communicates an ethical demand: Do not kill me.  The epiphany of the face is humbling.  When we look on the face of the other, it speaks to us:  Do not kill me.  Do not let me die.  Do not let me die alone.

Emmanuel Levinas was born in 1906 to a Jewish family in Lithuania, and he died in 1995.  He moved to France for graduate studies and became a French citizen in 1930.  He spent much of the Second World War in captivity.  After the war, his philosophical teaching focused on ethics.  He argued that in philosophy, ethics is more important than truth-seeking.  We don’t need to know the nature of existence to sense our ethical duty to other people.  One’s ethical relation to “the other” comes before one’s relationship to the world, even before one’s relationship to himself or herself.[ii] (Levinas 1986, 21)

Are we basically good, or bad?  Are we worthy, or unworthy?  These are questions of human nature and identity, not of ethics.  They are not the first question of philosophy, for Levinas.  The first question, the first challenge to us from philosophy must be:  What is my duty to the other?

Levinas says that “the face of the other in its precariousness and defenselessness is, is for me at once the temptation to kill and the call to peace.”[iii] (Butler, 134)

University of California professor Judith Butler, writing about Levinas, explains:  “The Other’s face … at once tempts me [as a human being] with murder and prohibits me from acting on it.  The face operates to produce a struggle … [the] struggle at the heart of ethics.”  (Butler, 135)

Levinas says this demand is the heart of our identity;  “I am defined [he says] as … a singular person, as an ‘I,’ precisely because I am exposed to the other.”  It is because I am [inescapably answerable] to the other that makes me an individual.” (27)

Levinas was a secular thinker who identified with the tradition of Greek philosophers.  Yet he was Jewish, and he did write commetnaries on stories in the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures.  Whereas traditional theologians might say the Bible is about the relationship of humans to God, Levinas would say that the stories in the Bible are about human beings encountering one another, face to face.  They are about the question:  Am I my brother’s keeper?  Am I my sister’s keeper?

Levinas says yes.  He reports:  “There is a Jewish proverb which says that ‘the other’s material needs are my spiritual needs.’”

In the story about Jesus, the scholar starts out selfishly: how can I get eternal life.  Jesus reminds him of Jewish law:  Love God all that you can and love your neighbor as yourself.  The next question is not:  Who or what is God?  And it’s not:  How much shall I love God?  The question is:  Who is my neighbor?  Jesus tells a story, and there’s not an easy answer to be found in it.

In Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, Al-yo-sha Karamazov says:  “We are all responsible for everyone else – but I am more responsible than all the others.”  He takes responsibility for his duty to the other, but refrains from imposing it on anyone else, from demanding of others ethically as much as he demands from himself.   

Once during a dialogue, another philosopher asked Levinas, if we aren’t  “ethically obliged to struggle for a perfect world of peace?”  Levinas said, “Yes, but I seek this peace not for me but for the other.”  This, he said, is his standard for himself. (31)

I’ve often wondered about the difference between ethics and morality.  I’m still not sure I understand it.  In any case, to Levinas they are not the same.  As I understand him, ethics is about a primary personal duty to the other.  Though morality “is … founded on an ethical responsibility,” it is about “a series of rules relating to social behavior and civic duty.  [Morality] operates in the [political and social] order [for] … improving our human survival.”

Levinas explains:  “If there were only two people in the world, there would be no need for law courts [or other social structures], because I would always be responsible” for the other.  “As soon as there are three, the ethical relationship with the other” involves community structures and political systems to balance competing needs and claims.  (21)

Ethics is not a rule of conduct or “a manifesto.” (29)  It is a struggle, a search, and a call.  We can feel it and hear it when we look upon the face.

Judith Butler says the face of the other speaks to us, “Speaks in a voice that is not its own.”  It speaks “in something other than language.”

She says:  “We need to hear the face as it speaks to know the precariousness of life that is at stake.” (151) This is the epiphany.

Butler recalls:  “In the Vietnam War, it was pictures of the children burning and dying from napalm that brought the US public to a sense of shock, outrage, remorse and grief.”  Seeing those pictures, seeing the precarious lives in whose deaths our fighting was involved, this country turned against our involvement in the war.  The public was not meant to see those pictures, Butler says; we were to see only images chosen to be portrayed as the face of the enemy, not images of as the face of suffering real people.

She writes:  “Media representations of the face of the ‘enemy’ [often remove or] efface what is most human about the face.” (Butler 2006, xviii).

Butler notes that in our recent wars in the Middle East, government and media have shown us few faces of civilian families destroyed by our weapons.  They have spoken few of the names of the civilian dead.   Now we use drone aircraft for waging war, which is undeclared but real.   A drone is a remotely flown plane for surveillance and for bombing.   Most often from the government we hear of terrorist leaders killed by drone strike; in the media we see a face pic of an enemy.  Yet, as activists and eyewitnesses are learning and trying to tell us, this new arms-length mode of smart combat can eviscerate as many civilian bodies and end as many children’s lives as the old fashioned kind.

Levinas has described ethical responsibility “as insomnia or wakefulness.” He says this is “because it is a perpetual duty … that can never slumber.” (30)

To be ethical, to love neighbor, is to be watchful and vigilant.  Love of neighbor “cannot sleep.”

Yet, Levinas writes, it is common for us to drift off to sleep, to give up watching.  It’s a choice commonly made.  Yet he says:  “Even if I deny my … responsibility to the other… I can never escape the fact that the other has demanded a response from me before I [assert] my freedom not to respond.”  (27)

This makes me think of panhandlers on the street.

Perhaps it is a common sight for you, as you walk, drive or bike around, to see men and women begging for money by the side of the road, at intersections, or on sidewalks near stores.  Perhaps you or someone you know has been in that situation, has been so desperate that panhandling seemed like the only option left.  Holding up a cardboard sign:

Please help.  Need food.  Homeless.

 Have kids.  Have AIDS.  Veteran.  Hungry. 

Thank you and God bless.

I can imagine that when we encounter this reality, we experience a wide variety of reactions.  Among us here is probably a range of opinions about how to respond when asked for money.  Some of us don’t want to say no.  We tell ourselves:  it’s not much money to me, and it can mean a lot to them.  Some of us feel we just can’t spare the money; things are that tight.  Some who work hard every day resent a person standing outside collecting money every day.   Some are afraid of getting scammed.  We may worry about financing an active addiction.   We may suspect that a given panhandler is not really homeless; what if he has disability income and a facility in which to live?   With a diversity of perspectives among us, this can be a rich and challenging topic of conversation.  For the record, here is my approach.  It’s not the perfect one, just the one I use.

While I may offer food if I have some, and I’ve bought meals for some people, I don’t give money to those begging for it.  Instead I direct my donations to local organizations that have a mission to help.  I trust their expertise in making good use of the money.  I let their staff decide who really needs what.  I trust them to set limits.  I trust them to wrestle over the question:  How much is enough?

So if I am walking down the sidewalk, and I get a request for money, I say, “I’m sorry, sir,” or “I’m sorry, ma’am.”  And I try to look at them.  Or, sitting in my car waiting for a red light to change, if a beggar is holding a crude sign six or eight feet from the window, I make myself look.  I look them in the face. I greet their eyes, nod once, or smile.     Of course a smile is not what they are soliciting, but it can’t hurt.  And looking into their face reminds me that they are human.  It challenges me.  It gives me questions I can’t answer.

Philosophers and spiritual teachers give us challenging questions.  They do not give us airtight answers. Often they can sound unrealistic, even utopian, in the ways they challenge us.

Levinas admits that he is accused of being utopian, of being unrealistic:  “’Where did you ever see the ethical relation practiced?’ people say to me.”

He replies:  “This concern for the other remains utopian in the sense that it is always… other than ‘the ways of the world.’”  Even so, he reminds us, “there are many examples of [this concern] in the world.”  (32)  Concern for the other is not the way of the world, but there are many examples of it in the world.

Even if our ethical relationship is utopian, he says, this “does not prevent it from investing our everyday actions [investing them with] generosity or goodwill towards the other:  even the smallest and most commonplace gestures, such as saying ‘after you’ as we sit at the dinner table or walk through a door, bear witness to the ethical.”

Reading philosophers is hard for me–learning a new vocabulary, wading through their wordiness, straining to make sense of a dense book.  Fortunately, some philosophy can be lived and felt without words.  We can practice our ethical awareness by looking at the face of the other, whoever that might be, however we might be given a glimpse of that face.  We can feel what the face has to say, without words, without language, with a voice we hear in our hearts.

When it comes to ethics, we can start with what is revealed when we encounter the face:  face to face, vulnerable human being to vulnerable human being.

Our actions matter.   We are bound together in vulnerability and in our need.  We need one another more than we know.

Blessed be, and peace.  So may it be.  Amen.

[i] Luke 10:25-37 from The Message translation by Eugene Peterson. 10:25-37&version=KJV;MSG;NIV

[ii] (Levinas 1986)

[iii] (Butler 2006)


Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2006.


Levinas, Emmanuel and Richard Kearney. “Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas.” In Face to Face with Levinas, by Richard A. Cohen. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1986.



Sermon: Money, Stress and Sources of Meaning

Roger Jones, Associate Minister

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Unitarian Universalist Society

Sacramento, California

 Hymns:   #346 in SLT (Come Sing a Song with Me), #21 in Voces del Camino (Ven, Espiritu de Amor), #201 (Glory Glory Hallelujah), #298 (Wake Now, My Senses) both in SLT.


            In our culture and society, money and stress…seem to go together.  The topic of money occupies our time and mental energy.  Disagreements about money can divide people in families, congregations, and communities from one another.  Secrets about money can leave us with lasting regrets, can poison or damage relationships.

Spiritual or emotional problems with money can exist whether you make a ton of money or a little, whether you are wealthy and well-situated or struggling under enormous debts.

What amazes me, though, is how many folks I know who don’t let it get them down. Not all, but many of them seem to pursue lives of meaning and purpose, and remain grateful and optimistic, even with financial challenges.

I know a man who is now 40 years old.  After high school, he served a tour in the military.  Then he worked various jobs, learned a new language during overseas travel and moved across the country to live near the mountains of the American West.  He lived simply, renting rooms from friends or sharing an apartment with a girlfriend.  In some years, he received financial help from his parents, and once or twice he moved back across the country to live at home.  After many jobs and schools, he graduated from a good college at age 36.  Unfortunately, just then the Great Recession was revving up and the economy was going down.

After a while he got a job in a business call center, which didn’t pay well and was a miserable environment.  Not a sweatshop, of course, but not enjoyable.  Last year he found a job with a landscaping maintenance company.  There is plenty of overtime work, and on Christmas Day plowing snow earned him double-time pay.  That’s good, as he makes only $12 an hour.  He hopes, before long, to advance to a salaried management job, with benefits.  At age 40 he is married, and he has no health insurance or savings for retirement.  Nor does his wife.  She also works at a low-wage job.

Their economic situation is like that of many people of their generation—those born in the 1970s and 80s.  So are their leisure habits:  local entertainment and restaurants, costly computer and phone technologies, and a modest vacation now and then.   They work very hard, and they enjoy a lively urban life.  He told me:  “I might not ever do another office job.  And I don’t know if I even want one.”

Of course, this couple’s parents worry about their future.  So do I.  Yet they feel blessed.  Are they making the right choices?  Who am I to say?  On the one hand, they are not planning aggressively for needs of their health, possible children, and retirement.  On the other hand, they are making choices about what gives meaning to life from the available options.  They feel blessed.   Given their measures of meaning, life is meaningful.

The experience of meaning is important to all kinds of people, all over the world.  No matter our wealth or poverty, no matter our culture, human beings pursue the experience of meaning.  A Silicon Valley friend of mine wrote a book entitled Making Meaning, along with two of his colleagues.  As business consultants, they work in the field of design strategy—that is, how a firm can design its offerings to appeal to customers, meet their needs, and build customer loyalty.

Using demographic research, the authors conclude that people increasingly seek meaningful experiences when we make our consumer choices.  No longer is convenience, color, a catchy slogan or even “coolness” enough to engage consumers.  People are looking for a sense of connection with sources of meaning in all parts of life, including the realm of consumption.  Companies that connect us to our sources of meaning can make a lot of money.

Their company conducted over 100,000 interviews in different countries to help its clients understand their markets.  The authors list fifteen categories of what people consider   meaningful experiences.     The fifteen categories include most of the common types of meaningful experiences across the countries and cultures of the globe.

Are you curious? These categories appear on the cover of your order of service, so you can take the list home.  Perhaps you can talk about them during coffee hour today, or bring them up for conversation in any small group in which you participate.  Thanks to Julie, the member who offered to design that “word cloud” on the cover.  I assume it was a meaningful experience for you!

I ask you now to stop looking for a moment, and just listen as I read you the list.  See if it makes sense to you as a whole.  Then I’ll quote a definition for each one.  The authors put the list in alphabetical order (as no category is more important than any other). [i]   They are:  accomplishment, beauty, [creativity], community, duty, enlightenment, freedom, harmony, justice, oneness, redemption, security, truth, validation, and wonder.

Here they are again:

Accomplishment—achieving goals and making something of oneself; a sense of satisfaction that can result from productivity, focus, talent, or status.”

Beauty—The appreciation of qualities that give pleasure to the senses or spirit.”

Creation [or creativity]—The sense of having produced something new and original, and in so doing, to have made a lasting contribution.”

Community—A sense of unity with others around us and a general connection with other human beings.”

Duty—The willing application of oneself to a responsibility.”

Enlightenment—Clear understanding through logic or inspiration.”

Freedom—The sense of living without unwanted restraints.”

Harmony—The balanced and pleasing relationship of parts to a whole, whether in nature, society, or an individual.”

Justice—The assurance of equitable and unbiased treatment…a sense of fairness and equality.”

Oneness—A sense of unity with everything around us.”

Redemption—Atonement or deliverance from past failure or decline, … or deliverance from a less desirable condition to a more pleasing” one.

Security—The freedom from worry about loss.”

Truth—A commitment to honesty and integrity.”

Validation—The recognition of oneself as a valued individual, worthy of respect.”

Wonder—Awe in the presence of a creation beyond one’s understanding.”

This book offers advice on how to design and market services and products to appeal to our need for meaningful experiences.   The book’s business message is:  understand the customers—your current or potential ones.  Consider what’s important in their lives.  Consider how they might experience what it is you are offering.  What sense of meaning do they feel?

In the 1960s and 70s there were just a few soft drinks on the market.  The leader was Coca-Cola—just plain old Coke in one or two standard sizes.  Coke’s marketing appeal was the experience of community.  Some people had drunk it all their lives; it had become a friend.  Advertisers turned a popular song about human kinship into a commercial:  “I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.”  By now, Coke is merely one of many types of soda pop.  There are numerous flavors, containers and serving sizes.  These options are aimed at the experience of freedom of choice.  The authors write that freedom of choice has grown in significance in the consumer field.[ii]  I confess that it’s not so meaningful for me.  I am often overwhelmed by the multiplicity of options out there.

From the crassness of a carbonated beverage, let’s look now at the experience of meaning in an important human endeavor: the rearing of children.

For many people, this activity is filled with meaningful experiences.  Yet, the kind of experience it evokes will depend on your personality, circumstances, background, culture and location.  For example, children can reflect the creative urge—the desire to extend your family through adoption or birth, and to shape a new life.  Or… in many societies, children provide security, a guarantee against isolation, or a source of extra hands to till the fields or staff the family business.   In many traditions, having children is what you do to be a responsible member of society, so it reflects a sense of duty.  It can also give a sense of accomplishment to have reared a child.  Some of us do not have children, but we find meaning in connections to them—in our families, in work and volunteer activities, and here in this congregation.   For many non-parents as well as parents, children can evoke an experience of wonder—a sense of awe at a fragile, growing person, and a sense of unity with a child, with humanity, or with life itself.

The book Making Meaning does not encourage companies to trick people into accepting false experiences of meaning, though some companies try.  A sense of meaning is not something you can force on others.  Nowadays more consumers pursue experiences that resonate with our values and sources of meaning.  To be successful, companies must try to understand such motivations.  Such an approach calls for inventors, designers, and marketers to cultivate empathy for the customer, to imagine the customer’s experience.

To some veteran business people, this may feel too philosophical.  Empathy?  Sounds touchy-feely! Does this have any place in business?

Some religious people, on the other hand also may have an urge to reject this. To link the search for meaning to the pursuit of profit?  How crude, how petty!  People should find meaning on their own.  Nobody needs to sell it to them.

Yet we do pay for meaningful experiences in various ways.

Consider the gifts of culture, the arts. Remember that beauty and creativity are in that list of sources of meaning.  We pay to attend concerts, plays, and wine tastings, and to come to fundraising dinners and concerts here at UUSS.  We pay to visit zoos, nature preserves art museums and aquariums.   Many of us contribute money to support them.  We pay to see movies.  We pay to read books and magazines and buy songs from the Internet.  And companies make money when they make these experiences available to us.  Of course, many songwriters, novelists and poets write without expecting to make much money; they do it for the love of creating.

In a poem by Marge Piercy (“For the young who want to”), an experienced and celebrated writer offers advice on doing the work of writing for its own sake, its own meaning.  She writes:


            Talent is what they say

you have after the novel

is published and favorably


Beforehand what

you have is a tedious

delusion, a hobby like knitting.


Work is what you have done

after the play is produced

and the audience claps.

Before that friends keep asking

when you are planning to go

out and get a job.[iii]


…. [The poem concludes:]

Work is its own cure. You have to

like it better than being loved.


While other folks were not paying for this poet’s work back in the early days, she was paying for it.  Her pursuit of the meaning she found in creativity did have a cost.  By devoting her time to writing, she was making a sacrifice.   A sacrifice full of meaning for her.  An investment.

Millions of people enjoy Walt Disney World.  The Disney experience is designed to evoke wonder and awe.  Yosemite National Park also provides an experience of wonder and awe.  So does the Sacramento Zoo. Even a stroll along one of our nearby rivers can evoke wonder and awe.  All of these experiences have a cost involved.  Whether it’s airfare, lodging, parking, food and the price of tickets for Disney World, or the admission charge to the zoo, or just the time you take away from another activity to stroll along the local river, these are expenses; they are investments.  Investments in activities in which we experience meaning.

Some of us buy coffee that’s labeled “fair-trade.”   For us, doing so evokes a sense of justice and fairness for growers and workers in other lands, and the coffee is delicious.  Some fair-trade is brewing for us back in the kitchen right now. Here at church we buy fair-trade coffee for these reasons, and because a portion of what we pay will support projects of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.  For me this practice evokes justice and community.  There’s also an aspect of beauty, which is a source of meaning.  That is, when I’ve got caffeine coursing thorough my veins, the world looks beautiful!

Many people in retirement enjoy going on Elderhostel trips.  Elderhostel is now called Road Scholar.  That not- for-profit organization sells cultural and educational travel packages to several thousand destinations a year, with pleasant accommodations, well-planned sightseeing, lectures, and performances.  It’s a success because it has determined the needs and interests of the people it wants to serve.  If any for-profit company provides comparable travel experiences to a similar customer base, it is likely have similar success.  To make money while you offer a meaningful experience is not a bad thing!

Nine years ago I spent several weeks in India. I wasn’t sure what kinds of meaning I was looking for.  I wanted to see what would happen to me.  I did have the meaningful experience of enlightenment—insights about other places and cultures, and about myself.  I also had an experience of accomplishment, because I survived all of the ordeals of that solo journey.  But it took more than my having the proper attitude to get meaning out of the experience, it took money to get me there!

Writing in his journal in 1861, the Massachusetts mystic Henry David Thoreau asks:  “What are the natural features that make a township handsome?  A river, with its waterfalls and meadows, a lake, a hill, a cliff or individual rocks, a forest, and ancient trees standing singly.  Such things are beautiful [he says]; they have a high use, which dollars and cents never represent.”

Of course, nature is a key source of meaning for us.  Often we think of nature’s bounty as priceless.  Not a commodity, but a free gift of creation.   Thoreau continues:  “If the inhabitants of a town were wise, they would seek to preserve those things, [even] though at a considerable expense.”  So, he says, we should spend money on this.  Even an idealist like him admits that money is related to sources of meaning.

We must make choices to experience, protect and preserve what we value, and what gives value to us.  Choosing to value some experiences more than others is an investment.  An investment of our time, attention and money.

Yet in these busy times, too much competes for attention.  So much claims to be a valid pursuit of meaning, so much claims our time and money and attention.  How do we know what to choose, and what to leave aside?

Thoreau famously spent weeks and years thinking about what mattered to him.  Most of us do not have that much time.  But however much time we can carve away to think about how we treat the sources of meaning in our lives, it is time well spent.  If we can settle down, calm ourselves, look inside and look around us, it can be time well spent.

Any sliver of time in a day or a night in which we can contemplate what we care about, and how we choose to make use of our time, attention, and money—that sliver of time can be precious.  Consider it an investment . . .when you take time to think about, write down on paper, or speak to another person about what you appreciate and value, what you aspire to, where you express your sense of meaning.

Let’s look not only inward, but look around.  Let’s notice what we are blessed by, what we appreciate, and what we give to.  Investments in our sense of meaning.

If we are lucky, the ways we spend our time, attention and money are wise investments in meaning. In particular, they ways we handle money can reflect how we pursue meaning.

How we earn or gain money, and the gratitude with which we receive it and own it, and the spirit with which we save it, spend it, and share it can express our sense of meaning.  If we are able to reflect on the use of our time, attention and money, it will be worth it.

May we know when it is worth it.  May we know when we are blessed.  So may it be.  Amen.


[i] Making Meaning, p. 32.

[ii] p. 131.

A Changing Church in a Changing World: Final Post, Final Questions: Surviving or Serving? Growth or Hospitality?

In 1985 I was 24, in a new city (Springfield, Illinois) and in a first job in a new career.  In retrospect I see that I was starting a spiritual search that included participation in four very different kinds of denominations and traditions.  This journey has included friendships with ministers and members of all four.  (Eventually I put down roots in one of those four traditions–Unitarian Universalism–and found a call to ministry here.)


In that new city, I paid only one visit to a church of the mainstream Protestant denomination in which I had grown up.  It was an elegant, large limestone building with familiar music, dark wooden pews, and reassuring stained glass.  As I slipped into a pew behind an older male-female couple, the lady turned around, smiled at me and gave me her welcome.  “I hope you stay,” she said.  “We need young people.”  I smiled back.  I’ve heard this kind of outreach referred to as the vampire approach—we reach out because we need fresh blood.


Ten years ago, at a district workshop on outreach and hospitality, a UU colleague in his late 50s spoke about his first time in a UU community.  At age 16, having had a Catholic upbringing, he learned about Unitarian Universalism.  Intrigued and interested, he found the local church in his Florida town.   He rode his bicycle there one Sunday.  Perhaps they had no “youth program.” If they did, but I don’t remember that from his story.


After service he visited the church bookstore and met a woman there.  As she got to know him, she learned that he was curious about our approach to religion and that he liked to read.  She handed him a book, asked him to read it, and invited him to come back to tell her what he thought of it.  On a future Sunday he brought the book and himself back to the church on his bike.  He and his adult friend discussed his thoughts about the book.  She gave him another book, and said she looked forward to another conversation.

This routine continued; this friendship developed; this young man later grew into a minister and an esteemed coach and consultant in our movement.  This was not the result of an organized outreach campaign, an advertising blitz, or a sermon series on UU evangelism.  It was a simple, one-to-one gesture of curiosity, patience, and the gift of time.  This is true hospitality.


When I was 16 I had a driver’s license and could easily drive to Indianapolis, 30 miles away from my home.  I’ve wondered:  What if I had found out about All Souls Unitarian back then and taken Mom’s car up there on a Sunday?


Would I have received the kind of warm welcome—the gestures of curiosity about who I was, what I cared about, what brought me there? 


Perhaps, after shaking someone’s hand, I would have been directed to the staff or a volunteer leader of the “youth program.”   [Message:  This is where and how you fit in.]


Or maybe I would have heard an apology that they did not have a “youth program.” [Message:  Sorry that you don’t fit in.]


Or maybe I would have heard:  Maybe you could start a youth group here; bring your friends!  [Message:  What can you do for us?]


Every time I hear, in a congregational setting, some innocent and well-meaning questions—“How can we attract more [x] people?”  “How can we appeal to them?”—I want to ask Why?


We value diversity, and we value everyone’s individual outlook and personal journey.   If we start with a practice of true curiosity about whoever is standing in front of us in the moment, it will matter less whether they are x or y, whether they like the majority of the congregation or are different in some way.


To me, this is the question about younger generations and our congregations:  Are we looking for what we can offer, and the ways we might serve real people with real needs? Or are we looking to survive as a congregation in the forms and habits we are used to?


Is our goal to serve, or to survive?  Do we wish to pursue growth or hospitality?


Some may ask:  Can’t we do both?  Probably so, but we need to determine which motivation is driving us, which purpose is calling to us.


If we are drawn mostly by nostalgic longings to perpetuate the church we used to know (or to create the one that matches our ambitions or our idealized memories), I fear we will continue to be frustrated and confused, and to miss out on many creative opportunities to enrich our souls and serve our larger community.


If we are drawn mostly by the opportunity to be of service as a community, and we approach that with curiosity, patience, flexibility and perseverance, I am confident we’ll find and summon the resources to follow this calling.


Summary of My Blog Postings on the Changing Religious Landscape

Can We Thrive in the Changing Religious Landscape?  First of a Series


Are We Protestant?  Is this “Christian” Faith Formation Research Relevant to the UUA?


The Changing Religious Landscape includes Declining Attendance in the UUA


The UU Religious Landscape:  More about Growth and Decline in the UUA


Summary of 13 Trends in the Religious Landscape plus 4 Possible Scenarios (some scary!) for the Future of Religious Life in the U.S.  URL:

Details of Trends & Forces Affecting the Future of Faith-Formation:  A Changing Church in a Changing World


Emerging Adulthood and Younger Adults and “Tribal Church”:  Trends & Forces Affecting the Future of Faith-Formation—Trends #7 and #8


The Hot New Trend in Religious Identity:  Nothing in Particular


The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated:  Threat, Opportunity, or Not So New?

– Post 1 of 2.  URL:

The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated:  Threat, Opportunity, or Not So New?

— Post 2 of 2.  URL:

Navigating the Road Ahead:  With Anxiety or Humility?


Final Post, Final Questions:  Surviving or Serving?  Growth or Hospitality?


Are We Protestant? Is this “Christian” Faith Formation Research Relevant to the UUA?

To see the big picture means learning about the context in which we are working, to see ourselves and our organizations as participants in larger social trends.

By studying trends and forces that affect our work, we can think together about the systems we use, live in, and perpetuate, and think together about how to articulate the changes for those we serve and those we serve with in our churches.

Lifelong Faith Associates is “committed to helping congregations develop lifelong faith formation for all ages and generations, increasing the capacity of leaders and communities to nurture faith growth.”  Its report was discussed at the LREDA (Liberal Religious Educators Association) Fall Conference in 2009.

The report’s main audience and area of focus is Christian communities and the report’s language reflects this.  However, it’s relevant to UU congregations, even those where Christian theology has a small presence.

Historically and sociologically, UUism is Protestant.  As part of the Main Line of American religion, we do reflect the dominant culture, and changes in culture affect most Main Line churches in the same ways.  While theologically we may be closer to a Reform synagogue, by and large a Jewish congregation preserves its distinctiveness from the dominant culture.  Indeed, it’s hard to convert to Judaism.  UUs have thin boundaries with the larger culture.

What I share with the report’s authors is the vision and the hope that our faith communities can shape lives from birth do death, can promote worship, service, learning, community-building and wholeness in human relations—both in our churches and in the communities where they are located.

Navigating the Road Ahead: With Anxiety or Humility?

Presbyterian seminary professor Michael Jinkins describes the pejorative attitudes and stereotyping that some older adults display when talking about lower church participation by younger generations, with such accusations or labels as slackers, entitled, short attention span, no ambition, and lacking the idealism, civic duty or activist spirit of earlier young adults (as the older adults remember their generations). [1]

Jinkins calls this defamatory, but attributes it to the sense of anxiety that many older adults in congregations feel regarding the loss of numbers, resources and prestige that their denominations and congregations have experienced.  Yet, Jinkins warns, “Anxiety makes a poor counselor, and age alone makes no one wise.”[2]

Unitarian Universalist Association president Peter Morales, citing organizational scholars and consultants, told the 2011 General Assembly that human organizations decline or fail not so much because of challenges they face but because they hold on too much to past success.

Of course, for mainline, mainstream Protestant denominations, the founding stories of all our faith movements are the stuff of legend in seminary history and polity courses and in an inspiring sermon now and then.  Furthermore, successes from the Baby Boom era, like church expansion and prominent social action, remain in living memory.

Spiritual writer Frederick Buechner says that “dreams of fame and fortune die hard if they die at all.”  L. Roger Owens and Anthony B. Robinson quote him in their recent article, “Dark Night of the Church.”[3]  Considering multiple studies of American religion, they give this summary of decline in the mainline, or the in mainstream denominations and congregations:  “Loss of market share.  Conflict.  Absence of young adults.  Financial crisis.”

Whether we are facing the fast plummet of moderate Protestantism or the less frightening plateau of Unitarian Universalist membership numbers, it is clear:  Things have changed for us.  First, we must recognize this fact. Next, we must recognize our anxious longing for a clear explanation and a prescription.  Then we must explore.

This moment is a spiritual in-between time for organizations.  It’s like the “dark night of the soul” which St. John of the Cross famously identified as part of our individual spiritual journeys.  The dark night is not spiritual death and not necessarily clinical depression, but it is a time of uncertainty and of discomfort.  This calls for enough detachment to explore, consider, and create.  I think it calls for humility.

We are humbled in our presumptions that we knew how to do this church growth business very well.  We are humbled in our presumptions that our congregations could operate as we always have and continue in power and local prominence even as the landscape around us has been changing.

Perhaps, the authors write, we have allowed external measures of identity to define us—numbers, money, social prominence, and proud peak moments in our history.   In this “dark night of the church,” we can continue to work and serve, and to be confident that creativity is a key resource for congregational communities.

We can continue to discern our primary mission as congregations, and practice that mission.  To be the church.  To be the religious society.

To be an authentic religious community in the world in which it now exists, and to be an alert community as the world around us continues to shift and change.

[1] Jinkins, Michael.  “Foreword” to Tribal Church:  Ministering to the Missing Generation. Alban Institute, Herndon, VA, 2007, p. viii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] L. Roger Owens and Anthony B. Robinson. “Dark Night of the Church.”  Christian Century, December 26, 2012, p. 28.

Emerging Adulthood and Younger Adults: Trends & Forces Affecting the Future of Faith-Formation: A Changing Church in a Changing World—Trends #7 and #8

For Trend #7, Faith Formation 2020 describes the trend of “emerging adulthood,” which means that “the transition to adulthood today is more complex, disjointed, and confusing than it was in past decades.  The steps through and to schooling, first real job, marriage and parenthood are simply less well organized today than they were in generations past.”

I was born in 1961, at the end of the Baby Boom, and received a bachelor’s degree on schedule in 1983.  I went straight to a graduate professional school and began my first career in 1985.  It was assumed in my demographic (white middle class) that a young adult would either go to college and then find a job or would find a reliable job soon after high school.  The expectation for young adults to have a career, family and home of one’s own was dominant in my culture, even if exceptions were not hard to find.

That expectation no longer describes life for adults in their 20s and 30s.  Upheavals in the labor market and larger economy have shrunk opportunities and kept per-capita income nearly flat in three decades.  Economic booms and burst bubbles have brought instability.

Citing a 2006 book by Anya Kamenetz, Carol Howard Merritt notes that “the median job tenure of workers from 25 to 34 is just 2.7 years.”  They change jobs and industries more often and “have more frequent periods of unemployment and underemployment.”  This rings true with my personal experience with younger adults in church, nearly all of whom are smart, creative, compassionate, living with large debts or poverty-level incomes or both.

I know plenty of congregants, colleagues and my own relatives whose adult children are living at home—still or again—or depending on regular financial support of their parents.  Financial-advice columnists worry that most younger workers have saved or invested little toward their retirement needs.  Stagnant incomes and frequent changes in jobs mixed make this hard.  So does the merchandizing of our consumer culture, and the rapid upgrades on expensive technology.

Trend #8 is “the rise of a distinctive … faith and spirituality” in the post-Baby Boom generations.   Faith Formation 2020 speaks of  the “uprootedness and change” experienced by most young adults, but it also explains that this life stage involves considerable creativity and exploration.  Its report cites the social scientist Robert Wuthnow’s image of “religious tinkering” among people in their 20s and 30s.

While the “tinkering” image shows curiosity and experimentation, it does not necessarily imply commitment to a religious institution or even longevity in any one location, which we have come to identify as an aspect of long-term commitment.

The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt calls younger adults a “nomadic generation.”[1] In her 2007 Alban Institute book Tribal Church (which is also the name of her blog), she also refers to them as “the missing generation,” which means missing from churches.

I’ll post more on Tribal Church.

[1] She is a progressive Christian minister who grew up in Presbyterian churches and has served a number of them as a young woman; having hit age 40 she no longer calls herself a younger adult.  Also, she prefers the terms “older adult/younger adult” to the terms of sociological jargon like Boomers, Generation X, Millenials.