Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

When “Spiritual but not Religious” is not really enough: a Colleague’s Perspective

At the  June meetings of the UU Ministers’ Association, we had an entertaining and inspiring (as well as challenging) talk by the Rev. Lilian Daniel, a liberal Congregationalist minister from a Chicago suburb. Her somewhat snarky blog post of 2 years ago went viral. Her more recent book includes that but has a lot of other, more charming anecdotes and reflections about church community and the calling of parish ministry. Anyway, take a look:


Prayer in Georgia–travel journal–in 3 Parts


Of course I prayed over Eric and Kate at their wedding in the apple orchard, and I trust most of the gathering joined me in sincerely giving thanks for them and for a day so full of emotion and promise, and in sincerely wishing and hoping the best for their future, and committing ourselves to as much support of them as possible.


Sunday morning I went to the large UU congregation in Atlanta for church, arriving between services to enjoy Fair Trade coffee, donated Panera Bread leftovers (for a contribution) and conversation with lay leaders who head up some of the congregation’s ministries, like a longtime volunteer alliance with an inner-city school (for tutoring, fundraising, seasonal fairs and fun times) and a new task force called Spirit of Service, which aims to help folks discern their gifts and know how to  plug into volunteer service.   My colleague Anthony is the senior minister and gave a great sermon about a UU spirituality of prayer.  He spoke about public prayer, private prayer, and prayer between close friends and colleagues.  Prayer is not giving instructions to God, and to do it one need not believe in any particular kind of divine, or in the divine at all, period.

Prayer is a way of focusing our attention and our intentions.  It can be a ritual that sets apart a special time, such as when the family gathers for supper at the end of a day of diverse and separate activities and needs a centering and bonding moment.  It can take the form of a caring and open heart– listening and repeating back the longings, concerns, or good news of the friend who is speaking.  It can be opening up to the sky above as you lie in the grass, and seeing the bright stars in the vast darkness, and feeling that you belong amid this creation and are no less mysterious than the rest of the universe, and no less wondrous.

In addition to his eloquent sermon, we had a pastoral prayer with piano and choral music under it, and we all joined in on the refrain from UU songwriter Nick Page’s lovely “We Pray.”  The service opened with a Hebrew chant to welcome Rosh Hashanah, the start of the High Holy Days.  After we commissioned the Religious Education volunteers for the year, we sang them and the kids and youth out to the RE program by singing Joyce Poley’s “When Our Heart Is in a Holy Place.”  The service ended with another form of prayer, the rousing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known also as the Negro National Anthem.  The whole thing flowed with beauty and power–clearly the result of a lot of time in collaboration among all the worship staff and volunteers.

3) Back to the night before.   Hungry after a movie, I found myself sitting at the bar at a loud, crowded bar in a cool section of Atlanta.  It boasts the largest selection of beers anywhere–heck, that’s not all– it has more kinds of whisky than most other bars have kinds of beer.   Part of the large, young crowd was a wedding party, post-reception.  I ordered a newfangled shepherd’s pie with salad greens on the side.  A young man sat next to me and set down a glass with a foam sleeve that keeps drinks cool; it had that day’s date and the name of the happy couple.  He had brown hair in a pony tail, a thin beard, and a flannel shirt with sleeves rolled up to reveal some tattoos and strong, fleshy forearms, one of which had a lace garter around it.   He asked what I was eating.

Somehow we got to talking about weddings and what I did and where I was from.  He has some friends from out here, a woman who came here to start a church.  He mentioned his own church, which I could find online, one site in his area and another out here.   “I used to be an atheist,” he said.  His father was a Baptist preacher, his parents strict, and he was resentful of church.   Then, six years ago, when he was 28, he had a motorcycle accident.  He t-boned a bulldozer that had pulled out in the road.  The doctors told him there was no hope for him to walk again.  He would be paralyzed from the waist down.

A friend of his sister asked if she could bring some friends from her church to visit him in the hospital.  He said he didn’t mind.  They came to visit and prayed for him.  They did so regularly.  In three weeks, he could walk again, and soon he left the hospital.  “Did you have physical therapy?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “my spine was severed; they said it wouldn’t help.”  He leaned over and pulled up his shirt to show scars on his lower back.

“Ever since then, I’ve known God and believe that he is a healer,” he said.  “I’m not very religious, though.”  He pointed to his glass on the bar:  “I drink and smoke.”

“You still smoke?” I asked, showing my Unitarian bias when it comes to social vices.

He said that yes he does, “But I’m praying to be delivered of it.”    He said he likes talking to people, “loving them up, and telling them how good God has been to me.”

We spoke about his work as a contractor and about the emerging economic turnaround he’s experiencing.  He noted that it was striking that he’d sit down in a bar next to a minister.   Sounds like the start of a joke, doesn’t it?

I hadn’t even wanted to come to this place, but my first stop–a quiet cafe with internet–was no longer serving food at this late hour.    I didn’t even order one of the 400 beers or 35 whiskeys, as I was annoyed that the bar didn’t have internet, so I’d have to go back to the cafe after the meal to get online.

Had I mentioned this to my neighbor, he’d have seen the hand of God at work.  Maybe so.   His meal came and I paid my check and wished him well.  We shook hands and parted.


Busman’s Holiday/Minister’s Vacation #2– Sunday worship, July 15

While my pal Bruce was bringing his prophetic and heartfelt message to the flock at home (“Who Gets What:  Economic Inequality in America), I went to church at the smaller congregation in rural New England where I had done my seminary internship about 17 years ago.

Linda and Ed picked me up in the city; we got there early so they showed me the “new” building the congregation had bought a few years back and renovated.  It’s a former convent or monastery, with a lovely rectangular chapel and a decent-sized and bright fellowship hall next to a kitchen that’s too small to cook a meal for 150 adults (but not too small to heat up or refrigerate some of the potluck dishes).  Their capital campaign had a goal of over $300,000 and raised about $800,000.  The main level includes a library/meeting room, nice administrative office, and minister’s corner office; one of her windows looks out on a nearby pond!  The RE rooms were downstairs, but they opened onto a ground level since the facility is on a hill.  There is a long hallway with floor-ceiling windows outside all the classrooms, whose windows let in a lot of that light. Right outside is a playground, and you can see the pond.

Of course, a congregation is not a building, no matter how nice it is.  Linda told me on the ride there about the major losses by death of some beloved elders:  Joan and Elsa, both of whose husbands were there.  I was very choked up to think that they are not here anymore.  Linda also reminded me that her youngest is now 32 and a tattoo artist on the West Coast–how could that be:  he was only 16 just a couple of years ago, wasn’t he?  Here’s a bit of UU diversity for us to ponder:  Another kid from the church recently got married; she’s in her 30s.  Again:  How could that be; she was just a teenager.   Her mom told me she owns and runs a gallery for local artists in another town and makes jewelry.  Her husband is in marketing for an adult video (etc.) store, and they attend a nearby UU congregation.  The mom (his mother in law) works as an advocate/social worker for women who have been abused sexually or physically, so this is a challenging juxtaposition in the family.  Another mother told me about her four grown kids, one of whom is a son on his Mormon mission in another country.   The others are UUs or nearly UUs, but this one didn’t feel enough at home in our religious culture, and became a Mormon (while attending college at a major progressive university founded by Universalists).

The sermon was given by a lay leader in the church, a  young mother of two-year-old twins, a preschool teacher and permaculture farmer.  It was about mindfulness, the practice of noticing, thinking without words, observing what is and being gentle with ourselves.  Very nicely done.  This church has the practice I don’t like of–early in the service– inviting visitors to rise and introduce themselves.  I did so, since Linda would have done it for me if I had not.  I said it was good to see some familiar faces again.

I had noticed on arriving that a young heterosexual couple and two little children were there for the first time.

Though they had gotten name tags for all four, they did not rise to introduce themselves.  (And, nicely, the service leader said that all those feeling shy about standing up were welcome to stay after service for some ice water and conversation so the congregation could get to know them.)  I was disappointed to learn that there was no RE class or nursery care on summer Sundays, though a family could leave the service and go down and tend their own kids in the nursery).  One of the kids couldn’t handle much of the service, and mom left with him.  Dad stayed with the other, occasionally trying to get him to be still.  I felt uncomfortable knowing that they had made the effort to check out a spiritual community as a family but were not having an easy time of it.  I wanted to talk to them after service, but it seemed strange for me–another visitor–to say “thank you for being here today,” or “we’re glad you came.”  But after the benediction I did introduce myself to the dad and told him I was a family minister at another UU church.

“Is this your first time here?”  Yes, he said.  I responded:  “It’s a major undertaking for a family with kids to get out of the house to be at services and visit a church, and I admire you for making the effort.”  He said thanks and “We’re glad we came.”  They didn’t rush off, the mom and other kid came upstairs, and the lay preacher’s two twins came in and added to the mix of toddlers.

I was surprised to realize how much I care what kind of welcome families receive when they visit our congregations.  Whatever the reasons they decide to make the effort, the reasons are significant ones and their visits to check us out are a precious gift.

Busman’s Holiday/Minister’s Vacation–Northeast Worship visit July 8

In Ithaca, NY, area on Sunday, July 8, it was the second Sunday in the pulpit for the new pastor at the liberal United Methodist church.  He had started his job with them on July 1, when many clergy are starting vacations.  We two UU ministers (traveling companions and friends for 16 years) skipped UU alternatives because we had done some research:  We wanted a real service, not a “talk” with “feedback” by the congregation on some issue that might be interesting to the regular UU church friends and community of the lay speaker but might not spiritually feed first time visitors.  And another UU church in the area was shut down for the summer.  We enjoyed a warm congregation (and warm, humid sanctuary), robust hymn singing to organ music, a strong soloist (as the choir was off), a relevant prayer for the challenges of life (even while one is on vacation), a kids’ story before they went out for Backyard Bible Study, the summer RE program there.

The Bible reading was from the Gospel of Mark 6:13–Jesus says a prophet is welcome everywhere but in his home town, he urges his disciples to take no possessions with them and not to be picky about accommodations in the towns they visit, and if they are ignored or spurned by the towns to which they seek to minister and witness, they should shake the dust off their sandals and move on to the next stop.

The sermon was not a stem-winder, but thoughtful, subtle, delivered in front of the pulpit with no notes, with the middle aged man in a shirt and tie but no jacket or robe).

Folks were friendly but not so outgoing to intercept us before we left.  Two of them gave us walking directions to our next stop.  One note:  At the start of the service, they ask you to pass “pew pads” down the row, signing in your name and whether you are a visitor or member, and if you have any requests.  The pad of paper makes its way back and forth, so you can read to see who else is there with you.  I asked a man in our row if he was related to a UU minister with the same last name, but he wasn’t.

We got the impression that this was a genuine spiritual community with a lot of health, a progressive heritage, a presence in the local college-oriented community–not perfect or stellar, but solid.  It was also explicitly and clearly in opposition to the official stance of the United Methodist Church on full inclusion and affirmation of LGBT people.  (The denomination recently had voted not to accept non-celibate gay persons as clergy or to affirm marriage covenants in same-gender couples.)  This church was having a series of films like “Fish Out of Water” and “Incompatible with Christian Teaching.”  Gotta love those progressive Protestants who keep the faith, and maintain a stance of open doors, open minds, open hearts.

We discussed the sermon with interest and appreciation while walking to meet my friend’s daughter (26), who had spent the morning with coffee and the Sunday New York Times at a bakery.

Glimpses of a Global Faith—Earthquakes, Handshakes, & Hugs in the Philippines

Family Minister’s Message about the ICUU Meeting–and Us

A 6.7 quake hit minutes before our plane from Manila landed February 6 in Dumaguete City, Philippines.  We had lunch by the sea, watching for “weird waves.”  We felt a 4.8 aftershock, and other aftershocks, for days.

Luckily a geo-physicist from Norway was one of the 71 folks attending this meeting of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU).  Checking the Web, he told us the tsunami warning was over.  Yet the quake had cut off remote UU villages on the north part of Negros Islands from international visitors, and from power and supplies.

Unitarianism and Universalism are found in 50 countries–and counting.  A Canadian minister (the current president of the ICUU) says that we global UUs are not all the same, but are a collection of indigenous expressions of liberal religion.

At this meeting we experienced variety of UU worship style, theology, economic circumstance, and cultural standards.  And much love!

Borrowing Sacramento’s pledge drive theme, all the indigenous versions of our global faith are giving safe harbor, and sharing a beacon of love and justice.

  • The Philippine UU Church brings village lay leaders to the city for training sessions at headquarters.  It is advocating for a national bill for reproductive health.  Rev. Nihal (a December speaker here) operates a micro-loan program for villagers.  He monitors the progress of the boys and girls who receive student sponsorships from UUs in North America.  In the dirt-floor village churches, ministers preach the love of God for everyone.
  • An Australian ICUU delegate gave us testimony about his atheism.  He said he values his church as a safe harbor to explore all matters of spiritual significance and life purpose.
  • The Czech Unitarians will mark 90 years in Prague this year.  The tribal Khasi Hills Unitarians in Northeast India mark 125 years.  Both invite us to visit!
  • A Netherlands denomination representing 47 liberal congregations was voted in as a new ICUU member at this meeting.
  • UUs from Nigeria updated us on the anti-gay oppression they must confront, plus government corruption.  One said:  “We are in the midst of plenty, yet we eat like ants.”
  •  The lay leader of the UUs in Mexico City counts 25 souls at services—and 450 online members.  He has a prison ministry—translating and teaching the adult level of the UUA’s “Our Whole Lives” sexuality course to inmates (male and female).
  •  In Britain, Unitarians practiced congregational democracy long before a Parliament gave power to the people.  In Romania under communism, the state required the minister of every Transylvanian village church to do all the work, disempowering lay leaders.  They’ve been relearning church democracy—and trust of one another—since 1989.
  •  A former Catholic brother in Burundi serves as minister of the new UU church in Bujumbura.  Now married with kids, he works for a British nonprofit, so his ministry is a side job, as it is in most poor countries.  They’ve built a new building and have 80 members.  And the Burundi church is mentoring the Kenyan churches in building up liberal religion.
  • In Kenya, every UU church family has an AIDS orphan living with it.  A young lay leader led worship for us one night. He said prayers for our host nation, his own, and all those in trouble or transition.  He taught us a Kiswahili song, and we went around in a circle shaking hands and hugging one another, singing.
  • The Kenyan UUs were recognized as an “emerging group” by ICUU.  Then the Bishop of the Transylvania church (the oldest Unitarians) presented this newest group with a table cloth and copy of the 1668 Edict of Religious Toleration.

When I see what a liberal church means to people all over the world, I get choked up.  I realize that our own congregation is just as important to me, to us, and to our own corner of the world.  I re-commit myself to support UUSS as much as I can.

What we create here does matter.  Thank you for being a part of it.

Yours in service,

PS—Right now at UUSS, we are pledging financial support for our congregation for the coming fiscal year.  Pledge cards will be turned in by Celebration Sunday, March 4.  We have one service at 10:00 AM with RE classes.  Hope to see you there!

What are the largest groups of Unitarians and Universalists in the World?

Greetings from another day of the biennial meeting of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, in Dumaguete City, Philippines.

Make your own guesses before reading further.  The answers are buried in the paragraph below.

Each member group to the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists has voting delegates depending on how large its membership is.  Each group also pays annual dues to the ICUU based on the group’s own count of its members.  Groups from developed countries pay 50 cents (US currency) per member.  Groups from less developed countries pay 5 cents per member.  The Unitarian Universalist Association (USA) pays the largest share of support, about $60,000 a year.  This is less than our calculated dues, which would be about $20,000 more.   The answers to the above question:  The USA has the largest number of adult members, 163,000.  The second largest denomination is the 450-year old Unitarian Church of Transylvania (which is a Hungarian speaking province of Romania), with 45,000 members.  The third largest is the church in Hungary, with 25,000.  I understand that the Hungarians and Transylvanians will merge into one Hungarian-speaking Unitarian denomination in the near future, returning to their historic relationship.  India (mostly in the Khasi Hills of the far Northeast Indian state of Meghalaya) has 10,000.  Canada has 5,000 adult Unitarians.  The liberal religious community of the Netherlands, recognized as our newest member at the February 7 ICUU Council meeting, has 4,300 members.  United Kingdom has 3,700, but some great old church buildings.

UU Church of the Philippines has 2,000 adult members (and tons of kids!)  Our newest “emerging group,” the UUs from Kenya,  counts itself with 476 members.  For now, I’m leaving off other. smaller or emerging groups from the developing world (and some of the shrinking European groups).

To read more about the council meeting, visit the Faith without Borders weblog:

Philippines 2012: Who is arriving–and who cannot–for the ICUU conference

At dinner last night I sat with Francisco Javier, a lay leader from the UU group in Mexico City.  He is a large, bald, gregarious middle age man who is a freelance writer on issues political and religious in Mexico.  His congregation in the capital city  has only 10-20 members for it services, but is a remarkable group.  Most of them are gay, he said.  He has a prison ministry, traveling 3 hours to get to a poor part of the metro.  He is the only visitor whom the prison allows to bring in a computer.  He spends 6 hours teaching separate groups of women and men prisoners.  The curriculum is Our Whole Lives, the sexuality education program developed by the UU Association and the United Church of Christ.  He has translated the 18-35 (young adult) level of the curriculum into Spanish, and uses that.  He has not been trained as an OWL teacher, but has friends who are sexologists who say the curriculum is as good as any they have in Spanish.  I told him that a colleague of mine and her endocrinologist husband are the trainers of teachers in our district, and that right now we have an OWL class going on for junior high youth.  He would welcome an invitation to attend OWL teacher training in California; I told him he could stay with me. Maybe some people or group could sponsor his travel and registration for the training.

This morning at breakfast I was happy to tell our ICUU program director (whose congregation in Michigan is partnered with the Unitarian church in Bujumbura, Burundi) that one of our newest members back home is a woman who teaches French and linguistics at the university and is from Burundi.  She was delighted, and spoke of networking that is going on among Burundians in the US to support the civic activities of the Bujumbura congregation.   She told me that the minister, Fulgence, is on his way here.  However, two of his lay leaders won’t be making it, due to immigration and visa restrictions.  Nobody thought to ask, and they f0und out the hard way, that people from a handful of countries (including Burundi) must have a visa to make a connection in the Hong Kong airport!  Doesn’t matter if you are not leaving the secure area, you can’t get on a plane that stops in Hong Kong without having gotten a visa.  What a sad loss of an opportunity, as well as loss of the fare to Expedia.