I’m not feeling Easter-y this year. I’m tired, generally grumpy, and I seem uninterested in many things that I used to be passionate about. I’m not feeling depressed as much as exhausted. It’s been a stressful year full of financial anxiety and it comes after two years of many major changes in my personal life, divorce among them. I’m happy to be working out contracts with two congregations, where I will be half-time pastor at each, so my underemployment and financial anxiety is about to lessen considerably, and yet, I find that I’m not excited. I’m having a Leaves of Grass Easter this year. I seem a bit stuck; a bit lost amid the state of the world and my own personal struggeles and anxieties. As Unlce Walt put it:
I realize that I am not the first, but only the most recent person to make this connection: Unitarian Universalists are Nerdfighters. If you do not know what Nerdfighers are, please see this explanation in The New Yorker or the introductory video below by Nerdfighter originators John and Hank Green:
“People who instead of being made up of cells and organs and stuff are actually made out of awesome. They fight decepticons on behalf of Nerds everywhere!”
Nerdfighers are champions of reason and intellectualism which they use in the humanistic pursuit of making the world a better place. We Unitarian Universalists are proud to use intellectualism to increase the awesome in the world and decrease the suck. In fact, the Nerdfighters mission to increase the awesome in the world and decrease the suck is but another way of saying Love the Hell Out of the World. Loving the Hell out of the World and Not Forgetting to Be Awesome are excellent examples of world transforming ideas as mission, especially for a religion such as Unitarian Universalism that is trying to institutionally move “beyond Congregations” and weave “Free Range” Unitarian Universalists into the broader movement. Unitarian Universalists tend to be Nerdfighters by nature any way, we are to a great extent nerds and geeks who love to get involved in just about any social or political or religious activity that makes the world more awesome (more just, loving, equitable, sustainable and compassionate) while removing as much suck from the world as possible ( you know the hate, violence, oppression, war, disease, injustice, inequality, sexism, racism, homophobia, etc). There are many of us. We are legion. And we don’t all belong to traditional congregations. Yet, we all share in a big reason “WHY?” which I think can be described as Loving the Hell out of the World or Being Awesome and Decreasing Worldsuck.
Mission is more important than a mission statement, a creed or even a set of religious principles. Mission is a reason why you do everything! Mission helps an individual or a group or community make decisions about the best of use of time, money, resources and talents. For example does idea “X” or project “Y” increase the awesome in the world? If yes, then it is in line with the mission and worth your time, money, and effort. Does idea “Y” or project “X” decrease worldsuck? If so, it is worth your time, investment, and energy. Replace increase awesome and decrease world suck with your mission such as Loving the Hell out of the World. Does X or Y help you Love the Hell out of the World? If so, you are on mission. If not, do something else.
Another lesson about mission we learn from Nerdfighters is the importance of having a mission that is something which can unite a community by inviting them on a journey together but which can also be localized to each member’s or sup-group’s particular life, location, and situation. For example, a side project for the Vlog Brothers, The Project for Awesome, raises money for various good causes and organizations. What being awesome and decreasing worldsuck looks like in any individual context still contributes to the overall mission. It’s like Loving the Hell out of the World because the type of love, care, and attention your particular part of the world needs to remove the hell, might look different than someone else’s.
Mission doesn’t need branding or advertising. It needs living and acting and community. John Green told the New Yorker
“…We don’t really want nerdfighters to be a mainstream cultural phenomenon,” Green wrote me. “I worry that mainstream cultural phenomena need, like, Message Singularity and A Brand and an Institutional Voice and stuff. That kind of thing does not interest us at all. We just want to make cool stuff with people we like.”
While the institutions of religion (denominations and such) struggle with branding themselves and finding a unified message, millions of people are living out their humanistic faith (be it humanism or atheism or a humanistic approach to a tradition as Judaism, Christianity or Islam) without a pressing need for those institutions. What people are looking for is community on a similar journey putting their values into practice by, say, decreasing worldsuck. The great mission to do this takes many forms.
The Red Pill Brethren are one manifestation of Unitarian Universalism finding and living out a mission we describe as “Loving the Hell out of the World.” The Red Pill Brethren and our un-conference project, Life on Fire, has an outpost in Indianapolis with the Free Range UU’s of Indianpolis. John Green lives in Indianapolis. I wonder if he might be persuaded to come to a Life on Fire event in his home town and talk about this idea of mission, how DFTBA is an example and other cool things?
Just as Unitarian Universalists like to say, many people are UU’s, they just don’t know it yet, so too can this claim be made by Nerdfighters. There are a lot of Nerdfighters out there, some of them just don’t know it yet, such as many Unitarian Universalists.
So, UU Nerdfighters, don’t forget to be awesome and Love the Hell out of the World.
I love Ash Wednesday because it is a liturgical reminder of that Universalist promise that I am OK; that I am acceptable, loveable and OK just as I am. And so are you. God loves everyone, no exceptions. Even you. Even me. At the heart of Ash Wednesday and the ritual imposition of ashes is the Universalist theology that God condemns no one to eternal damnation. We are all IN with God. Even if we’re imperfect and make mistakes.
If there is anything that’s missing sometimes from the contemporary Unitarian Universalist worship tradition it is a ritual of forgiveness of, well, sins; the liturgical and prayerful recognition that I am a mess; that I am mess of anxieties and flaws and contradictions and a jumble of emotions that sometimes make it difficult for me to be my best self, and it’s OK to be such a mess. My messiness doesn’t make me unloveable or unacceptable, or wretched or evil, it just makes me human. It reminds me that I don’t need to be perfect, or even good, but as Brene Brown says (and as my partner is constantly reminding me) Good ENOUGH.
Good enough includes fucking up and unintentionally hurting others through things I do or neglect to do. It includes being self-centered and self-absorbed and self-important and beating myself up for not being who I want to be. I don’t believe that humanity is depraved and wretched, but we are not all good either. Ash Wednesday reminds me that the line between good and evil, right and wrong, dark and light, perfect and good enough are lines that run down the middle of each one of us.
Ash Wednesday reminds me that God does not seek to punish me or condemn me and I need to stop doing it to myself and others. Ash Wednesday reminds me that God loves everyone. No exceptions. Even you. Even me.
So today I took my imperfect, good-enough self (after an imperfect attempt at making ritual ashes – really, it took me three tries) and sat in coffee shops and cafes with some ashes and a sign that read “Free Ashes - Nothing can separate us from the love of God. God loves everyone. No exceptions.” I didn’t intrude on people or start up conversations. I made of myself a presence, gave out ashes to a couple of people, had some prayerful moments with a couple of baristas, doing my best to offer a simple reminder that there is nothing I or anyone else has done or will do that is so horrible we can not rest in the love of God’s forgiveness. Maybe I will even learn to better forgive myself.
Ash Wednesday reminds me that I am not God, I am human and am doing the best I can to live this human life. It reminds me that it’s good for me to say I’m sorry when I’m wrong, make amends the best I can, and move on.
Maybe this is the essence of all the old Christian traditions about repentance and the forgiveness of sins – not to make our human imperfection a burden, but to help us realize we are only human and good enough. Somewhere along the line, the concepts of sin and repentance got warped and bent into tools to heighten our shame and increase our self-loathing. Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to recover a healthy sense of sin and repentance. It’s just a part of life that we sometimes screw up, sometimes in big ways, and we need public and private ways to better acknowledge this that also reinforce for us we are only human and all we can do in any given moment is try to do our best.
The imposition of ashes is a ritual act of repentance, the purpose of which is not pointing out our wretchedness, but giving us a way to acknowledge we’ve made mistakes without giving ourselves yet another reason to feel like crap for making mistakes. Spiritually healthy acts of repentance emphasize both the responsibility to own our mistakes (confession) and recognition from another or others we are sorry for having human faults and not being our best selves (absolution). This an audacious ritual. It is at the essence of why some people had so much trouble with Jesus – he had the nerve to tell people they are forgiven for their sins! Spiritual healthy rituals of confession and absolution have to include acknowledgement that we are only human, we are doing our best, and even with our flaws and fuck-ups, we are good ENOUGH.
The Unitarian Universalist tradition needs more ritual acts of confession and forgiveness. I am comfortable with some of these inherited from the Christian tradition, such as the imposition of ashes, and I wonder what prayerful confession and absolution might look like for Unitarian Universalism.
I’m deeply grateful for the handful of people who received ashes from me today and for those who talked to me about God and Jesus while I ordered coffee and soup, and to those who asked about the rainbow pin I wore with my collar. I may not have been a perfect servant God or representative of Unitarian Universalism today, but I was good enough, and I will consider it blessing to have been reminded of that today.
Shellee Coley is a blessing. Finding Shellee Coley performing at a local pub last year was one of those little gifts of grace you receive when you frequent venues that promote that local music. I’ve gone out to hear Shellee a number of times since that night and one of the reasons I love her is that Shellee Coley is soul singer. Although right at home in the neo-folk movement with its attendant country, americana, and singer-songwriter vibe, Shellee’s music goes right to that place where your heart meets your being. It’s soul music.
She begins her new Songs without Bridges CD with an acapella version of the hymn It is Well with my Soul. It’s a powerfully haunting rendition that feels even more sparse than her solitary voice sitting alone in the front pew of an empty church. You’ll recognize the emotional space she sings from if you’ve ever walked alone in prayer on the edge of the water or knelt by yourself in front of the votive candles in an empty cathedral. Coley’s voice is the soul in those places. She sings only the first verse and the refrain, leaving out the lyrics about sin and Satan, using her voice to evoke the heart in the place of both sorrow and joy, the resting-in-God space of the acceptance of things.
Coley frequently tells stories about her songs while performing and many of those include growing up in a strict Christian home where she was only allowed to listen to religious music. Like many artists who grew up in a strict conservative Christian religious culture, Shellee’s work is permeated by Christian and biblical images. The religious references and allusions are authentic and prayerful, never self-righteous, contrived, or overly pious. They are artistic references from someone who has made peace with her spiritual journey, keeping the good and soul-enlivening, and leaving the rest behind. The tune Open Skies is an example:
“I will stand here singing under open skies.
I don’t need no shelter, I just need to feel the rain.
So I will walk through the valley of my shadows
and I will wade through the water of my death
and I will drink from cup that flows with mercy and love
and I will sing, I’ll keep singing the same old song
till they lay me in the yard. And even though I’ll keep on singing,
Lord, keep on singing my song forever more.”
Coley has written a couple songs about parenting and motherhood, including Conversations with Z from her last CD, which she co-wrote with her daughter. Continuing her mother’s journal on this recording, Free is a prayer that every parent has prayed in his or her own way.
“Sometime I wish I got paid by the hour to do this job.
I can leave at five o’clock and have martinis in my downtown loft.
Sometimes I wish I could find a damn bathroom to myself.
Ten minutes alone without someone knocking on the door
and needing my help, and I’d be free.
Free from a red head jumping all over my bed
on Saturday morning, demanding donuts
and to turn the TV on.
Free from a boy turning into a man before my eyes
and free from a breaking heart
as I watch him try to figure out this life.”
To the Water could have been written purposefully for a baptism or UU water communion liturgy. Coley credits the song to her discovery of the work Anam Cara (Celtic: Soul Friend) by spiritual writer John O’Donohue.
I’m going down to the water today.
I ‘m going down cuz it’s whispering my name,
and I don’t know if I’ll have much to say,
but I ‘ll listen for you and I’ll wait
for the deep to call out to me,
and I’ll wait for your voice to come set me free.”
Songs without Bridges is another page in the prayerbook for all of us for whom music is a spiritual practice. Amen.
I was recently asked to preach on hope to a local Unitarian Universalist congregation. Great, deep, theological topic, hope.
The more I pondered what I would say, the more I kept returning over and over to my training in systematic theology and ethics where I learned that hope is a gift, a grace. I wondered about this when I first studied the theological virtues. I’ve been pondering hope for weeks and wondering if the idea of theological virtues, especially hope, as gifts hold up with my Unitarian Universalist theological grounding.
My contemplation of hope starts with hopelessness. If hope is actually a grace and a gift, what happens when it is not present? There haven’t been a lot of times in my life when I felt the absence of hope, but there have been a few.
My parents divorced when I was ten years old. I have no memory of the initial days and weeks of their separation except crying. I probably didn’t cry twenty four hours a day, but my memory of that time is only crying and being told it would be OK and feeling like it never would be.
During college I suffered through a period of soul crushing depression. I didn’t get out of bed for days at a time. I went to work and to classes and put on an incredible mask. I could appear “normal” to the outside world, but it was always as if my mind and heart were split in two. I could carry on conversation and engage necessary activity, but at the same time there was a spinning reel of thought holding my mind hostage: I’m crazy, I’m going insane, everyone hates me, what’s wrong with me, I hate myself, it went on and on.” I had nothing to get me through except family and therapist reassurance that it wouldn’t last forever. It always felt like it was never going to get better. But I held on and held out, and it did gradually get better. I comes back every now and then, but never as bad as that first time when I didn’t even know what it was.
I’ve been through a divorce, which even though it was rather amicable was an emotional rollercoaster for over a year. I felt at home nowhere. I always felt lonely. I wanted to just be left and alone and at the same time I hated being by myself. I felt like there would never a “normal” in my life again.
I’ve been through job loss, unemployment and under-employment. I’ve felt like I would never be wanted or valuable or able to make a living at something I enjoyed and was good at ever again.
My parents now tell me that when the Red Sox lost the 1975 World Series I was inconsolable for a much longer time period than I was when they divorced. I lifted myself out of that first deep depression largely by praying “God, get me through this, let it end.” I didn’t believe then and don’t now that a supernatural being in the sky heard my pleas and changed my situation, but I do believe that the cry of my soul needed somewhere to go and be heard, and it’s way, it was. I have been talked through divorce and job loss by family and friends and I know in my heart that I have wonderful things left to give to the world.
Any one of these situations leads other people to give up. Suicides aren’t unheard of from people who go through similar things. And yet the world has far worse to dole out than what I’ve faced. What about people who are falsely imprisoned, raped, tortured or dying of cancer and a host of other ailments? Why do some people survive and continue living productively and why do others not. Why do some people live generatively even through the process of battling hardship and disease and poverty? Given war and violence and torture, why do some people survive and why do some people give in and give up
I don’t know, but it has something to do with hope. I’ve long been fascinated with hope. Hope is a very difficult thing to define and explain, yet we know it when it’s present and we also know it when it’s absent. It’s intimately related to persistence and tenacity and courage, but it is not any of these things. They are not synonyms.
Hope is a theological virtue, like Love and Faith. Some theologians argue that Faith, Hope and Love are gifts of grace. They are either present or they aren’t. There isn’t anything you can do to be hopeful or more hopeful or feel loved or more loving or have faith in something. I think I see it this way more and more.
I resisted this way of thinking of hope for a while because it seemed to me that if one is hopeless (or loveless or faithless), one is somehow at fault or being punished, or less than those who are hopeful (and loving and faithful). The reality I’ve experienced is that some people are generally more hopeful and faithful and loving and some are less or not much at all. It seems to matter little the particular circumstance. This is where this explanation of the theological virtues as gifts rings true with me.
No one is bad or wrong or sinful or less than for feeling and experiencing a lack of hope or a lack of love or a lack of faith. Sometimes these things are absent. it is no one’s fault. Why is it there and other times not there? I think it is just a gift. A quality or characteristic of the spirit or the soul or the heart.
Perhaps hope (like love and faith) is something we all possess, but don’t see or can’t access. The theological virtues are definitely different from the Cardinal Virtues and other virtues that one actually acquires by practice. How do you become more just? Practice Justice. How do you become more Courageous? Practice bravery. How do you become more wise? Practice good decision making. How do you become more loyal? Practice devotion. It just doesn’t work that way with hope. You can’t be come more hopeful by practicing hope. If hope is present you don’t need to practice it, it’s already there. Same for love and faith.
I am generally hopeful (even though I sometimes pretend to being otherwise) and I know lots of people who are not. Why? How? I don’t know. I keep coming back to hope being a grace, a gift. Hope is a gift of the spirit.
I also think we have a general misconception of hope. Hope is more than persistence and courage and tenacity. Hope is not a fairy tale or a magic potion to make it all better. Hope is not optimism. Hope is not a way out of our present circumstances, it is a way to live through them. Hope is not a way out, it is a way through. Hope is what makes hanging on possible. In 1986 Vaclav Havel was asked if he thought there was hope in the 1980’s. I love his response:
Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation.
Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is.
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
Havel articulates as well as any theologian I’ve read, the idea of hope as a gift. I believe that concept of hope is a core tenant of my theology as a Unitarian Universalist. James Luther Adams tells us that one of the five core elements of liberal theology is the idea that we believe (have faith or trust in) it as fact that there are enough divine and human resources to justify having an attitude of ultimate, if not immediate optimism.
I think what’s he’s speaking about is hope. Hope isn’t that optimism. It’s not the same thing, but maybe hope is the quality that exists in us that allows us to assume that attitude of ultimate optimism. In this way our faith as Unitarian Universalists is bound up in hope. The presence of this gift is a sign that we are Unitarian Universalists. So what happens if we don’t have the gift.
And here’s where I differ perhaps from the classical theology of the virtues and the traditional concept of the theological virtues as gifts. I believe (have faith in, trust in) that we are all equipped with what it is to be fully human. I believe we are all “saved.” There is nothing we have to do to get “in” with God or keep some God from punishing us. So what happens when we’re feeling hopeless, without hope? Perhaps it’s there, but we can’t see it.
Perhaps hope is like a gift that lost behind the Christmas tree and when discovered while taking down the tree, presents itself. Someone gave us a present, we just couldn’t see it. Perhaps it’s like a personal blind spot, something we can’t see in ourselves but others can. We may not feel loved or lovable, but others love us fiercely. Perhaps hope is, like grace, an “opt out” proposition. It’s always there, but circumstances or the way we feel prevent us from accessing it.
Although hope is not the same as courage or persistence or tenacity, but maybe hope, even the unseen presence of the hidden gift of hope, makes those things possible. Even though we can’t create or generate hope, maybe what we need to do in order to make hope available to ourselves and others is just be present, to be a companion on the journey, to witness the hanging on and hanging in until hope rises.
A number of years ago, I received a phone call telling me a member of my congregation had a baby. I know, happens all the time, right? Later that very same day I received a phone call telling me that same baby had died. Few things can engender the hurt, the pain, the loss, the grief and the hopelessness of losing a child. What was a pastor to do? The only thing I could do was show up and hold hands and give hugs and bear witness to the anger and pain and loss and name it out loud how much it hurt. It certainly wasn’t the time to be overly positive or unrealistically optimistic as hope (and love and faith) can only be present in the reality of the situation.
I know that during my times of depression and divorce and unemployment, it was nothing my friends and family said that helped so much as it was their just being there. Eventually hope returned, and it returns over and over, and I never really know why. Eventually, for many people hope returns after loss and pain and anger and the death of a loved one. How? I’m sure I still don’t know. I only know that it can and it does, and it’s like a gift each time, like a present you didn’t expect to get.
What do you think? Is hope a gift? Is it the same as optimism and persistence and tenacity? Or is it something different, such as a quality of the spirit with its roots so deep beyond and/or within us that it is experienced as grace and gift?