Monday, February 28, 2011

For You, UU

Let Us Be Counted!," the UUs for Jewish Awareness conference in Atlanta continues to stir in me, causing me to reflect on our living UU tradition. The conference was distinctly UU and distinctly Jewish!

Apparently, the fact that there are UUs who also identify as Jewish boggles people's minds. Even among UUs there seems to be a lot of anxiety about people with multiple, mixed or fluid identities suggested keynote presenter Dr Ibrahim Farajaje of Starr King School for the Ministry (SKSM). Farajaje' stated that the “mixities” and cross cultural influences between Unitarians and Jews date back to the16th century in Europe.

Dr. Farajaje' also reported that cultural competency has improved at SKSM as a result of multiculturalism among the student population. His keynote suggests to me that my alma mater has retained much of the philosophy that guided the institution during the 80's. SKSM wanted to prepare ministers to lead UU congregations to embrace every person as a potential source of divine revelation, as someone who could make profound contributions to the spiritual growth of the community. SKSM delivered this lesson in the way things were done. At SKSM, students taught seminary classes, and served on the board of trustees. The school helped make it possible for students to contribute to the community and to each other's preparation for ministry.

Farajaje told of lessons that arose as a result of having 3 Jewish identified UU seminarians in the same graduating class. For several years SKSM graduation had taken place on a Friday night. In discussions at SKSM, it came to light that the students' Jewish family members would not attend graduation if it occurred on "Shabbat." Graduation was moved to Thursday night and remains there still. This wasn't about making UU Jewish. It was about helping the seminary to stay UU, to remain consistent with UU values.

Dr. Farajaje' also shared a story of a Starr King student who led a chapel celebrating Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. As is Jewish custom, she placed on the altar apples and honey for people to eat at the conclusion of the service. She explain the significance of the tradition; wishing each other a sweet year ahead! She also did something that made the service characteristically UU. Rosh Hashana fell during Ramadan that year. During Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day. Knowing this, the service leader set aside some apples and honey on the altar for anyone who might be observing Ramadan to take with them for their nightime meal. Ibrahim said that people were really moved by the thoughtfulness, consideration and intention to be inclusive. I feel tears well inside me as I consider the clarity of the intention to establish the beloved community.

Farajaje said “When you plan an event, consider who the event is for. Are you doing something for your little group?, or for the entire congregation?” Robin Kottman, a leader from the "L'Chaim group" at the UU Congregation of Atlanta said that this principle had been responsible for their group's success. She said that they actively resisted beified as a group for UU Jews. From the onset, their intention was to be a group for UUs for Jewish Awareness. They found that many people were eager to learn, explore or celebrate Jewish traditions in a UU context. Many benefited bcause L'Chaim planned events with the entire congregation in mind.

I pray that we will all learn from their example!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Up for Adoption, The 10 Tree Challenge

IF YOU ARE A LOVER OF TREES... this could be your opportunity to make a profound contribution to our UU religious tradition and to GAIA (Earth).

Up for adoption, is the "10 Tree Challenge," a simple project that resulted in 40+ churches (and 50-100 other orgs.) planting over 3000 trees. Beyond the tangible results, an exceptional spirit emerged across the UU world as a result of this project. UUs grasped the simple idea, and then brought it to life in a myriad of creative ways that fit their particular congregation.

UU's are still hungry for meaningful ritual. Tree Planting proves to be both a powerful symbolic ritual and a way that UUs could make a visible contribution to their communities. UUs of every ilk, young and old, intellectual, political, spiritual all embrace this project.

I initiated, encouraged and facilitated the project, and watched it take off. Then other aspects of my ministry intervened. I was serving two congregations, and offering trainings in "Compassionate Conversations" (aka nonviolent communication). I wasn't able to remain focused on the "10 Tree Challenge."

The right person could help this project spring back to life like a tree after a season of dormancy. I would be glad to advise, coach, encourage and share some ideas. Or perhaps your creativity will be what makes the difference.

IMO the success of the program was due to its ease of implementation and to the Green Sanctuary program that was initiated by the UU Ministry For Earth. When "Green Sanctuary" moved to the UUA, traffic to the UUMFE webpage and to the link for the 10 tree challenge link dwindled. Frankly, I failed to recognize that adaptation was needed. GS Program Manager, Robin Nelson even invited me to write a guest blog on her site as a way for us to begin working together. I simply never followed up. Bottom line: there is institutional support/ willingness to see this go forward. It simply needs someone with some skill and passion to gather the firewood and ignite it again. (bad metaphor for bring trees to life, huh?)

Congregations find this project fun, fulfilling and magical. It provides a relatively easy way to be part of something that UUs were doing together. The success came with only a small percent of UU's hearing about the project. There is plenty room left for this project to grow! It would take a critical mass, a small number of congregations recognized for their efforts, and the 10 Tree Challenge would spread again. trees!!!

If you want to help revitalized the 10 Tree Challenge be revitalized, please email Robin Nelson or me

Sunday, February 20, 2011

All Our JUUwishness

All of us counts. All of the ways that we find to be who we are in this world, all of it counts. This was the message we received at the “Let Us Be Counted” Uus for Jewish Awareness Conference in Atlanta this weekend. It was a message that came home because of our experience of coming together.

UUJA President Rev. Leah Hart-Landsberg helped set the tone for our time together during opening worship. She referred to the “parsha” (torah portion) of the week that instructed ancient Hebrews how to build a sanctuary. “We will be building a sanctuary too,”she said. How right she was!

Personally I was gratified to see the influence that my alma mater, Thomas Starr King School for the Ministry had in the creation of this conference. Hart-Landsberg, and most of the planning team were SKSM graduates, and SKSM prof Dr. Ibrahim Farajaje' delivered the conference keynote address. (Thank you SKSM and President Rebecca Parker whose discretionary funds made that keynote possible.) Dr. Farajaje's presentation brought to the conference a precious aspect of Starr King culture. Beyond theology, I remember SK as a place that enriched its seminarians with an affirming sense of the sacredness of being. Learning how to bring this quality out in a community or congregational setting was a priceless aspect of preparation for ministry.

The quality of our gathering had many contributors. There was generous hosting of the UU Congretion of Atlanta (UUCA), Rev. Marti Keller, and the UUCA's L'Chaim group for Jewish Awareness. We enjoyed an abundance of Jewish music, the professional support of UUCA's Music director, Donald Milton III and performances by the combined choirs of UUCA and Bet Haverim. (BH is a Reconstructionist Congregation founded by lesbians and gays.)

Dr. Farajaje refered to the conference as a “Shabbaton,” a weekend retreat that focuses on a communal sharing of Shabbat. During the weekend, we shared the “mixities” of how we identify; the communities we belong to or hail from, and what continues to contributes to our journeys toward wholeness. We joined in the sharing of stories, prayers, poems, singing and music. We shared our selves, and were enriched by the sharing. It was an experience that affirmed who we are- beyond and through acquired identities. My partner from our havurah (study group), found the conference as “affirming not because there is a rule that exists among Uus that says we must accept each other, but because I experienced people here as being open, that they actually cared to find out who I am, and that they were willing to share with me something of who they are too.”

Sunday morning before the worship service, we sat and talked about what we had received. We said things like: “I know now that I am not alone.” “I thought being a UU Jew was something that I created.” “ I thought it was a figment of my imagination,” or “something that really wasn't supposed to exist, “ “Until now, I've hidden my love of being Jewishness out of fear of being perceived as cheating on my UU Church” “Many UUs seem to think that identifying as Jewish means that we're not really or fully UU. I'll never believe that again!” Each of us grew in awareness of the profound influence that Judaism, our relationship to Jewish people and cultures has had and continues to have on our living UU tradition. The ripples of our coming together, of our learning and our celebrating our JUUwishness will be felt throughout the UU world!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Who are we and Whose are we?

The flurry of posts on the UUJA e-list continues. I'm enjoying the busy-buzz-buzz of excited connecting.

It's made me think about who we are, and surprised that I haven't heard or raised this question before. Some of us identify as Jewish UUs. Some identify as UUs of Jewish Heritage (sub group- "cultural Jews".) Some are spouses or partners of Jews. Some of us are UUs with no Jewish heritage but who have an affinity for or interest in Judaism. Some of us wish to be "allies to Jews" because we have an understanding of anti-Jewish sentiment and oppression, the historical role the targeting of Jews has played in the maintaining of oppressive society. Who have I forgotten?

It's similar to the realization that there is not just one Jewish culture but many. There are Jews from most every ethnic /racial group. People who continue Jewish religious traditions come in several flavors: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Chasidic, Renewal, Reconstructionist, There are Jews of every socioeconomic class. We run the gamut from politically right wing to left wing Some of us would never criticise Israel. Some of us are moved by conscience to advocate for Palestinian's human rights.

Is there or could there be an over arching term that encompasses all of us? There is the name of our organization, UUs for Jewish Awareness. I'm grateful, but not satisfied. My brain begins trying to create an image of Jewish, UU and ally. What would symbolize ally? ...Holland? righteous gentile award? ...time for research. Wait, the UUJA has a lovely image of the chalice and the menorah! Am I reinventing the wheel? Some questions are worth repeating! And we can't have too much art.

Now I can't ask the question "Who are we?" without thinking "Whose are we?" At our January SWUUMA annual retreat, Revs. Galaher and Lortie gave us an experience of the dynamite UU curricula "Whose Are We?" This isn't a question needing an intellectual answer. It is one that asks us to see who we are by discovering the yearnings of faith and the ties of our heart. I expect that it is what we will be doing at the upcoming "Let Us Be Counted" conference in Atlanta.

PS. Some who connect to my Jewishness, occasionally call me by my Jewish name, Fivel. Yes, by all means feel free!
Shalom Y'all.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Issues Arise as UUJA Conference nears

“Let Us Be Counted” a conference for Uus for Jewish awareness is two weeks away. This week the UUJA e-list has suddenly lit up like a... Chanuka bush. UU Jews and UUs of Jewish heritage are expressing excitement, and anticipation of experiencing shared values, common understandings, engagement and celebration.

Connection is made sweet by empathy, an intuitive grasp of another's pain or joy. I'm guessing that UUJA members are eager to meet with others who know intimately what it's like to be UU Jews or UUs of Jewish heritage.

I have experienced (since '83) a tension being my identities as a UU and a Jew. Over the years I learned how to share my Jewishness in a way that increases the chances of understanding and appreciation. I've had also repeatedly experienced a cultural gap that I've taken as part of the cost of participation in this religious movement.

From my first days I found that UU literature expressed the beliefs and values that I was raised with as a liberal Jew, but the assumption has seemed to be that these ideas and values were the creation and the property of a group of former Christians, liberal Christians and descendants of Christians. My impression is that as UUs we see ourselves as an elite group of people who have been smart enough to claim only the sensible aspects of Christianity. The fact that only a minority of UUs identify as Christians doesn't alter this orientation. Rarely has Judaism or Jewishness been seen as part of who we are. It's been painful at times to experience the lack of understanding,the invisibility of the influence that Jewish beliefs and values have had upon our UU tradition.

For example, the idea that began the Unitarian movement was the Unity (rather than the trinity) of God. Channing in the sermon that is credited for the claiming of the name Unitarian in America, said: "we follow the religion of Jesus, not the religion about Jesus." How often has this passage been read by us? And how seldom has it been mentioned that the Unitarians and the Universalists were returning to a faith congruent with Judaism?

More personally challenging has been the way that the assumptions about who we are play out in our movement. Despite having UU values, having fairly classical Unitarian and Universalist theological beliefs, and despite a high degree of identification with "progressive culture," I have too often had the impression that I'm still not one of the the right kinds of people, not one of the "us." For years my internalized conditioning from being raised Jewish had me think this was simply my personal issue. In time I came to understand that there are implicit messages, cultural assumptions about who we are, and sometimes they don't include UUs of Jewish orientation. For years I sensed the welcome of Jewishness as superficial, that there existed a don't ask don't tell policy w/ regards to sharing what was really meaningful as a UU Jew. I had the impression that I was expected (as an outsider) to be willing to make constant effort to fit into a culture that doesn't belong to me.

Since I have kept my mouth shut on this subject for most of my life, I may not be quite able to articulate what I've experienced perfectly. Even if I can't spell it out perfectly, will you be willing to trust that I might be expressing an intuitive knowledge of something real?

On the few times I have attempted to raise issues of welcome, culture and Jews belonging in our movement, I've generally been reminded that there are lots of UUs of Jewish heritage. I'm given the names of specific UU Ministers of Jewish heritage.

It's been my sense that until recently, the majority of UUs of Jewish heritage had little exposure to Jewish religion or culture. Until recently it seemed to me that those of Jewish heritage that "made it" into UU, have tended to be highly assimilated Jews. Others attitude toward Judaism seemed to assume that Judaism was the escaped Egypt, and UU the promised land of liberation.

Fortunately, in the past decade, I've experienced increasing numbers of UUS who claim or have interest in the spirituality and richness of Jewish traditions. For me UU is a place that theoretically allows me to be my religious hybrid self. I suspect that the upcoming gathering will help move us from “in theory” to “in practice.”

Friday, January 28, 2011

"Walk With Us"

Just when the jokes about geriatric rock and rollers had seemed to put his generation in its place, along came Neil Young-again. Electric guitar pounding out his passion. Lyrics that take you deep, and a voice as soulful as ever, now girded with a strength acquired from years of living.

A friend emailed me a link to the video of Neil playing "Walk With Me." It shattered the cozy context of my Pastor's office, and simultaneously rocketed me to the fourth dimension. It's so rock, that I'm sure many people will love and rock out to this song, without ever associating a religious thought with it.

I hesitate for a moment as I write. Perhaps I should do my homework before writing. But I don't care if Neil Young intended to write a religious song. He did. And oh, um... I don't think that it's a coincidence that the video appears to be shot in a church, that the camera gives us long glances up from darkness into light,... or that stain glass windows frame the background. The fact that he passionately sings "walk with me" and mentions unconditional love do not go unnoticed by this religious man.

For all I know Neil Young might have had a real life flesh and blood lover in mind when he wrote his song. I don't care. This is rock and roll Hafiz, or Rumi. Don't express that kind of passion, and tell me it's not religious. Wait, am I suggesting that all passion is religious? Come to church on 2/13 for "Love, Sex, God and Power" and find out.

Neil Young isn't the only one who expresses religious thoughts and themes in a way that enables people from a wide range of religious perspectives to relate. For years UUs have played with language and tried to make room for theologically diverse people to find common ground. However, we went so far into code that many people forgot we were engaged in a religious endeavor. We are in the business of symbol that points toward the eternal, the sacred, the ultimate concern.

The intention to journey together, as in "Walk with me" has been reason enough for most of us to be UU. When our congregations did their job, they helped us to hear the inner voice that cries "walk with me" and recognize it as a longing for connection with something larger, something as large as life itself.

Although the song is newly written, we have been singing it for years. We have been singing to the Eternal, and we've been calling each other to find "the Eternal" in the spaces between us. We've been looking for and finding "the Holy" in our relationships, in our covenants and congregations. BTW, If you don't like the words "Holy" "Eternal" or "Sacred" substitute a word of your choosing. But realize that any word that we use in this sentence will be inadequate to express what goes there.

We find divine revelation by walking and working together striving to create "the beloved community." We encourage spiritual growth by walking together on a journey toward wholeness. When we walk together, we find meaning and purpose. When we walk together we also find our answers questioned. And in our characteristically UU way- we recognize the questioning as essential for our faith development. In the challenges of walking together, when our answers no longer define truth for us, or when they fail to serve as bridges to others' souls, then we become willing to struggle, reflect and acknowledge that there is more love somewhere beyond our thoughts and words. We become willing to open up to truth that is greater then our predetermined maps and plans. It is in this manner that we call to each other with the plea "Walk with me." In our journeying together we find meaning and purpose, and we find meaning and purpose in our journeying together.

Thanks Neil!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Coming out, Our Sacred Task

Starting up this new UU matters blog, I feel excitement wondering where it will lead. Not sermon, not article, what will it be? I'm fantasizing about throwing down all political posturing. I am feeling ecstasy imagining what it would be like to hear my own true voice sound out fully. Although ministry is about serving others, what I appreciate most about it is the fulfillment that comes when I'm being most like myself.

A good part of what we are doing as a religious people is encouraging people to “come out.” The term comes to us from gay liberation. One of the reasons why celebrating lgbtqui people coming out is that we recognized it as an affirmation and acceptance of nature, of who we are. We want this kind of coming out for all humans. We wish to promote the liberation of all souls. Intuitively we know this kind of acceptance to be a religious act.

It is by allowing our true selves to emerge, that we discover the divinity in our humanity. As UUS we are proclaiming that our inherent nature as humans is sacred, whole, lovable and awesome. Celebrating the act of coming out, (with a liberal application of this term) is perhaps our most identifiable UU way of illuminating a portal to a religious experience.

Personally, I know I still need to come out in many ways. I've been careful for too long. How can I preach the tradition of a faith where all souls are saved, if I'm not willing to live it? I must accept the divinity, inherent worth and dignity within myself and act accordingly!

Twenty-one years ago the UUA's ministerial fellowship committee denied my request to enter the search/ settlement process. It was only through grit (that I didn't know I had), that I inched and crawled and found a humble place in this ministry. I tried to be “soooo good.” I believed that I couldn't afford to get into any trouble, because any misstep could result in my getting deported as an undocumented worker in the field of UU Ministry. So I limited my risks. I bit my tongue, and I've eaten a lot of humble pie.

To a large extent I overcame my fear of being cast out, and chose to express my own true voice as a minister. I had to listen to the still small voice within me, and the voice of my own heart more than my fear of what I imagined might get me in trouble. And in truth, my heart still years for greater self expression.

I joined this faith tradition because I believed it would help me have full religious expression. Jesus ministry had touched my soul profoundly in a way that was unacceptable for a Jew. Because UUS affirmed Jesus as a man and because they revered his form of trouble making, I found a home.

Later in seminary, a line in a book confirmed the value of this. In “the Meaning and End of Religion,” Wilfred Cantwell Smith wrote “every man that is today considered religiously great, was at odds with the religion of his day.” I suspect that most UU's can appreciate this quote. It's no wonder we've struggled as the "un-church" or the "almost religion" for so long. Being a religion of people at odds with religion is quite a challenge.

It's a paradox, and a tight rope we walk. We have the courage to love the path of the ethical troublemaker. But in order to make more than just trouble, we must also realize that it's cooperation that makes evolution possible. We must love people, love our congregations, love our denomination, our human race, and life itself. We must care enough to be honest with one another.

In this blog, I intend to care enough to speak the truth in love. I intend to go where spirit leads me, to burst forth from my own private, careful little world. Where will it lead me? Will I be another UU gloating in the joy of complaining. Oh ecstasy, I have just complained about complaining! Will I point out how unbridled are our egos, and in doing so unbridle my own ego?

Echart Tolle says that “ego loves to make somebody wrong because it enables a sense of superiority. I wonder if transparency will expose ego's grip on me?

How can I live without analyzing and interpreting who is right and who is wrong? Isn't critical thinking our sacred cow? Is it our communion? If so, perhaps critically analyzing our “movement” is the UU communion of choice.

If I speak more openly about what I see, feel and need, what will become of me?! If I ease off internal censorship, and express what it's been like to be UU, will it expose me as a chronic complainer? I can also imagine inflating my ego while playing large a martyr script. I could demonstrate how noble I am to express the truth without regard for what it will do to my standing. If I can't be powerful, at least I can be right. Aint I UU?

We eschew martyrdom. We have contempt for martyrdom. We are part of a global marketplace media culture that obsesses on winning. Yet, not far beneath the surface of the fabric of our UU garment, run the strong strands of distrust and low expectations. We defensively choose smugness and cling to our assumed intellectual and educational superiority, in order to hide the fact that we expect mainstream culture to dismiss, reject or overlook us. Because we don't believe we could be powerful, we console ourselves with being right.

Wow! I am amazed to realize how this “shadow” side of me helps me fit right into the UU world. We bond in the shared experience of this delusion. It's delusion because we can be powerful, and we are not "the" right ones. All our preaching about about integrity, conscience and thinking for one's self will be useless unless we can actually demonstrate it in our lives.

Did I say that my blogs would bear no resemblance to my sermons? Shalom Y'all.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Priests in Trash and Forest Paths

WE are in every UU congregation. We are the ones who complain when the congregation uses styrofoam.  We are the ones who make sure that recycling or composting happens. (BTW, I love the phrase “Compost Happens.”)

At my last congregation, I was tempted to write a column “Your minister is a garbage picker.”  On several occasions, while living in the rectory above the church, I actually did fish through the church trash can to pull out recyclables; I refused to throw out discarded and misplaced cans and bottles.  

For a growing number of us, ecological action is part of being UU. Sometimes when we go out and about, we return home with a salvaged can or bottle.   My personal favorite is removing recyclables from hiking trails.  An outside observer might call it crazy, or lowly work, or perhaps consider it a random act of kindness.  To me, it's a religious act.  As I pick up the can or bottle, I imagine a chorus proclaiming “this one has been saved from the landfill!”

I have had several people instruct me in the Native American practice of making prayer ties, little pouches of tobacco to be left as offerings before receiving from Earth Mother. When done with proper intention, and prayer, it becomes ceremony.  

Picking up cans and trash from places of beauty became my offering, my religious observance.  With each can I retrieve, I include a prayer for the one who left it, as I express love to the Holy One who created us, the Web of life of which we are a part.

Before I adopted this practice,  I would see litter and make myself miserable.  Now I regard such events as a call to awakening and worship. Sometimes the sight of litter leads me to grieve for how we humans receive the gift of life.   As I allow space for grief, I find there's also room for peaceful, even joyous action.  Picking up recyclables (or trash) becomes a way to usher in the “kindom of heaven.”   There is connection to the divine and a special bond with fellow eco-spirit activists. This weird and wonderful practice can heal hearts.

Have you noticed things that UUs do? If you have notice UUs performing great or small acts of faith, I'd love to hear about it. Email me @