It’s been a week and a half since Life on Fire 13 in Oak Ridge, TN. I am still not sure I know exactly what to say about it all, but I need to start so here we go. We gathered 50 people from around the eastern half of the country to talk and pray and reflect on missional living. We used the UNconference model and the weekend was mostly a long conversation broken into formal small group discussions, dinner conversation and hanging out conversation. It was just amazing.
I don’t want to give a recap of the weekend or discuss what we talked about. I point those interested to the Storify of the weekend for a general recap. All I can do at this point is tell you how gathering with those amazing and wonderful people affected me; try to tell you what I got of the gathering.
It’s been two years now since I have pastored a congregation. I have had a difficult time finding out where I fit into Unitarian Universalism as a pastor without a congregation. I am, at heart, a church person. I love Sunday morning and I love church life. I also need church life to be more than getting together with a group of like minded people – and interestingly enough – this is what Life on Fire was, in essence – a gathering of people who want to live out their faith purposefully. I have always desperately wanted to live as if I am the person I say I am. Like most people, I’ve failed miserably at that often enough.
Finding one’s mission or purpose can be like creating art. As Winnie-the – Pooh said, poetry and hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you – and you have to go where they can find you.” Mission is much the same. When you live your life as you feel you should be, by your values, daily, as best you can, the greater purpose and the greater meaning usually surfaces.
I have always boiled my personal mission down to Jesus’ statement in Luke 4
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
My friend and Life on Fire co-organizer David Owen O’Quill speaks of mission, and his mission, as “connecting the disconnected.” This was the mission of his emerging church project Micah’s Porch. I had the opportunity to talk with David a lot over the weekend and following the weekend, the idea of “connecting the disconnected” has grown deeper and deeper in me. It has gotten under my skin and into my bones and into my heart. Connecting the disconnected is what Luke 4 is all about. Connecting the disconnected is what John Perkins’ Three R’s of Christian Community Development are all about. I am beginning to think that this is what Unitarian Universalism and liberal religion is about-connecting the disconnected.
People are disconnected in many ways. Some people are poor, both monetarily and spiritually. People are captive and blinded in many ways, and there are plenty of ways to connect these disconnected people and walk with them on the road to freedom. Still others are disconnected willfully through all the ways we human beings oppress each other and practice what seems to be no end of gross injustice towards one another. There’s plenty of connecting and re-connecting to do in terms of social justice work and anti-racism/anti oppression work.
Connecting the disconnected is what John Perkins is talking about when he says the most important parts of community development are reconciliation, relocation and redistribution. These three R’s are ways to connect the disconnected. Reconciliation reconnects us to each other, to God, and to the planet. Relocation connects us or reconnects us to communities that need our voice, our eyes, our ears, our arms and our legs to be the presence of God in the world. Relocation means taking yourself to abandoned places. There are even abandoned places in the middle of wealth, abundance, and suburbia. One need not go to the inner city or a place in the developing world to practice relocation and reconnection. Redistribution is all about connecting the disconnected to the resources they need: money, service, education, or things like tools or the internet. Some places and people are connected and have what they need. Other people and places do not, and our job is to connect abundance with need.
Life on Fire itself was a way for those of us who are feeling disconnected from church, from Unitarian Universalism, from other missionally oriented people to connect with each other for support, learning, and inspiration.
I have been disconnected from my vocation, my calling – largely because of my calling to mission. There seems to be little space for a missionally oriented pastor in Unitarian Universalism. And yet, during the Life on Fire weekend person after person, including other UU ministers, thanked me for this blog and for my presence promoting and teaching and offering resources for mission. I realized that I had so internalized the congregation- only model of church and ministry that I couldn’t see my own blogging and my circuit riding preaching on mission as ministry and fulfillment of my calling. I don’t feel nearly as separated and left out of my own religious community (Unitarian Universalism) as I did before the Life on Fire unconference. I am deeply grateful to all of you who pointed out my ministry to me.
Following Life on Fire, my friend and mentor in mission Rev. Ron Robinson noted on Facebook that our Red Pill Brethren are the radicals in a systemic change model. Ron is speaking about a book by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson that asserts the church is “on the verge” of massive changes. I feel this applies to Unitarian Universalism and liberal religion as well. Ron points out:
Read it (Hirsch and Ferguson’s On the Verge) and thought of us and our “movement” and how applicable this seems to be to Life on Fire going forward. Creating a movement, from On The Verge: “all that is needed to create a tipping point is 16 percent of any given population. The radicals (innovators and early adapters) represent the 16 percent; progressives are the early majority, 34 percent; the conservatives the late majority, 34 percent; and reactionaries are the laggards, 16 percent. For change to take place, you have to reach the large majority of the population (the progressives and the conservatives equal 68 percent). The change starts from the radical edge and needs to diffuse through the system. The problem is that the radicals are just that: hotheads. They tend to be impatient with process and champ at the bit of systemic change. The trick is not to let the radicals try to convince the conservatives, because the language and urgency of the hotheads inevitably pushes the conservatives toward the more traditionalist reactionaries. The key is to get the radicals to influence the progressives, and then get the progressives to influence the conservatives. You needn’t worry about the reactionaries; they will never change anyhow. Just be aware they can be problems. Be subversively wise in who connects with who across the spectrum….liquify your overly solid understanding of the church. Study the nature and characteristics of movements and become one. Think like a movement, structure like a network, spread like a virus…
This provided me with a lot of insight into my own ministry. I have been part of the radical fringe edge of mission in my faith tradition. It has been my job to influence the progressives. I had begun to think I (and others) had failed at this and that change was impossible, but I was wrong. I had affected more progressives than I had thought. Now some of these progressives are being invited into involvement by the denomination nationally. I wish I had known more about Hirsch and Ferguson’s analysis earlier in my career. I might have been better at being a radical who can mask as a progressive. I probably also seemed like a hothead to too many Unitarian Universalists. I have definitely been impatient with institutional change. Following Life on Fire, however, I realize that my ministry has had much more of an impact than I had imagined.
The Ministerial Fellowship Committee is meeting this week in Boston. Perhaps in years to come, candidates for the ministry might be asked “Who and what were the Red Pill Brethren and Life on Fire and how did they impact Unitarian Universalism?” Until then, see you in Turley, OK the weekend of Feb. 28- March 2, 2014 for Life on Fire 14!