Cause there is something in a Sunday, makes a body feel alone
And there is nothing short of die’n, half a lonesome as the sound
Of the sleepin’ city sidewalks and Sunday morning coming down
Early Sunday morning, having just checked out my hotel, I sit in an empty cafe section of the convention center in Columbus, OH and as I write the street outside the glass doors comes to life and people steadily stumble into line for coffee.
I usually don’t have time for this type of observation on a Sunday, as it’s a work day for me, being a minister. I am usually up and making coffee and doing a quick sermon review, getting dressed and out the door to church. But not this morning, This morning I am up early and have a casual breakfast with my oldest friend Hank before he left for the airport. And I sit and I hear Kris Kristofferson’s song in my head.
I am feeling incredibly connected once again to deep center of spirituality and values in which I center my life. I am also feeling as lonesome as the sleeping city sidewalk outside the convention center door.
There were many powerful moments for me this week. Some were moments of connection and inspiration and hope. Some were lonely and personal and reflective.
This year, the year I turned 50, I realized that I know more colleagues who are retiring and who have died than I do those just ordained and early in their careers. Each year on the Thursday night of General Assembly, The Service of the Living Tradition, honors and recognizes those religious professionals marking career milestones. Religious educators and musicians receiving credentials are celebrated and UU ministers receiving first and final fellowship are honored as are those who are retiring from full time ministry. Then there is a prayerful recognition of those ministers who have died since last year’s assembly. I knew so many of the retirees. So many of them had some impact, great or small, on how I saw the ministry and the role of being a UU minister. I also knew many of the those who died. As the retirees’ names were called I realized that I will make that walk across the stage some day, a day much closer to the present moment than it once was. And as the names of the dead were read in a litany I realized that some day my name will be called in that litany. That powerful moment put all the rest of the week into great perspective. As Krista Tippett noted in her Ware Lecture, “We are all part of an on-going project.”
Rev. Bill Sinkford’s sermon at the Service of the Living Tradition recalled that 50 years ago, the year in which I was born, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the Ware Lecture and urged the Unitarian Universalists present to stay awake and “not sleep through the revolution.” Rev. Sinkford reminded us that just a couple of years later the UUA would go through what has been called The Black Empowerment Controversy, but as Rev. Sinkford noted it was really a crisis about the loss of white privilege. l Rev. Sinkford noted that many people of color left Unitarian Universalism at that time as did he. But most, unlike Rev. Sinkford, never returned. As we struggle with the Black Lives Matter movement, he made us reflect on how much progress, all 50 years worth, we have lost as a religious movement because when the civil rights movement got real within our own ranks, fear and white privilege ended up being more powerful than our ideals about the dignity and worth of every person. Remembering that, might we be braver and more courageous as we struggle to be in solidarity with people of color and may we improve our efforts at admitting and addressing our privilege. To do this we need the courage to stay in conversations where we are uncomfortable.
Krista Tippett the host of On Being spoke about the need to be in conversation with others who are different from ourselves. She told us that our public space is increasingly a political space where argument not conversation is the prevailing mode of discourse. She encouraged us to create not public spaces, but what she prefers to term “common space” where we can listen to each other, realizing that for others we ourselves are “the other.” She told us that asking questions is important and there are dumb questions and we should craft our questions carefully so that they open space for each other and encourage conversation through being vulnerable. She reminded us that “listening is not as much about being quiet as it is about being present.”
I had many opportunities to be present and listen this past week. One that was especially important to me were listening and being present to Rev. Gail Seavey’s Berry Street Lecture as she spoke about clergy misconduct in the UUA and how far we still have to go to address this issue and bring justice to people and congregations that have been damaged and hurt by it. I also had the opportunity to be present and listen to colleagues involved with the International Council of Unitarian Universalists. I was reminded how much I have to learn from those who practice and minister to UU’s in other countries and cultures around the world. As I prepare to visit my congregation’s partner church in Transylvania for the first time, this made a deep impression on me.
For many years, it seemed at times that my journey through UU ministry involved a lot of banging my head against the wall as I and a cohort of colleagues called The Red Pill Brethren struggled to raise the issue of missional living and a missional approach to church. This year at GA, the Church of the Larger Fellowship ordained Shawna Foster to the UU ministry with the theme “Love the Hell Out of the World” and a candidate for UUA president, Susan Frederick-Gray, has made the call to be a mission-oriented people a cornerstone of her campaign. It felt like a lot of justification for the work I and so many others have done promoting this approach and this conversation for so many years.
I am deeply grateful to the members of the Red Pill Brethren for hanging out late into the night and talking mission and how our challenges now shift to finding ways to get people to understand and practice the profound shifts in life and ways of being church required of the missional journey. The big ideas and the terminology have been adopted by the broader UU culture, but we are only beginning a lived understanding of the profound changes living missionally requires.
I am deeply grateful to my siblings in the UU Christian Fellowship for the wonderful worship and fellowship that comes from having a group of friends and colleagues with whom I share a grounding in the way of Jesus and that it continues to have a place in our liberal religious Unitarian Universalist world.
So I leave this General Assembly inspired to have missional, present conversations, and to bring the power of love to the struggle against hate and violence and privilege. Now to get home and get to work.