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[This is a  draft of a sermon I'm delivering in Fargo, North Dakota this Sunday. I haven't preached in ages, so I'm a bit rusty. Hope I manage to get my point across.]

Headline, UU World, Monday, May 11, 2009: “Membership growth in UUA slows down.”

Headline, UU World, Monday, April 12, 2010: “UUA membership declines for second year.”

Headline, UU World, Wednesday, May 23, 2011: “UUA membership declines again.”

Headline, UU World, Wednesday, August 15, 2012: “UUA membership declines for fourth year.”

Headline, UU World, Monday, April 29, 2013: “UUA membership is flat in 2013.”

The UU World hasn’t published an article about membership in 2014 yet, but I bet you can guess how the headline might read. I can give you a preview if you’re interested. During the past year:

  • adult membership declined from 156,515 to 154,707 (-1.2%);
  • children’s enrollment declined from 51,588 to 49,191 (-4.6%);
  • and average weekly attendance declined from 97,400 to 96,788 (-0.6%).

For an association that had shown small but consistent growth over the last 50 years or so, this current trend is a little unsettling, even a bit alarming, perhaps. Just what the heck is going on?

What’s happening is that we Unitarian Universalists have finally entered into a period of decline that our mainline Protestant cousins have been experiencing for quite sometime. Truth is, when I read that first headline back in 2009, I knew that we would see a similar headline every year from then on…and we have. Why? Because there have been some significant shifts in the religious landscape here in the United States over the last quarter century, and whatever combination of factors—liberal theology plus favorable demographics?—that may have been damping the impact of those shifts have lost their effectiveness. We’re now in the same boat as the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the American Baptists, and Congregationalists, denominations that have been losing anywhere from 1% to 3% of their members each year for some time now.

To get some idea of what we—that is, congregations in the United States—are up against, I’d like to share with you some findings by John Roberto, the author of a book called Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation. I first became aware of Roberto’s work back in 2009, around the time that first UU World headline announced the beginning of our decline in membership. For years Roberto had been combing through the seemingly endless surveys and reports documenting the changes in church membership and attendance in the United States. Out of all the material he looked at—and believe me, there’s lots it—Roberto came up with what he calls the “driving forces” that have been effecting congregation is the twenty-first century. There are eight, eight and a half of them, according to Roberto. Not all of them are bad, either. Some might even sound like good news for Unitarian Universalists. At any rate, here they are:

  1. Declining Number of Christians and Growing Number of People with No Religious Affiliation
    Sometimes known as the “Nones” this group has gone from 2% of the
    US population in 1950 to 16% in 2012
  2. Increasing Number of People Becoming More “Spiritual” and Less “Religious”
    This group might overlap a bit with the “Nones.” About 18% of the population identified as Spiritual but Not Religious in 2014. An even higher percentage of young adults identify as such.
  3. Declining Participation in Christian Churches
    The latest figure on this is that while 40% of Americans claim they go to church on Sunday, the number is more like 20%.
  4. Increasing Diversity and Pluralism in American Society
    According to Census Bureau projections, by the end of this decade no single racial or ethnic group will constitute a majority of children under 18. In about three decades, no single group will constitute a majority of the country as a whole.
  5. Increasing Influence of Individualism on Christian Identity and Community Life
    Between 1960 and 2008, the number of uses of “I” or “me” increased 42%, and instances of “we” or “us” declined 10%, in hundreds of thousands of American books, both fiction and nonfiction, studied by a team of researchers San Diego State University. The rise of the singular pronoun and the decline of the plural are consistent with what has been described as an increasing level of individuality in American culture over the last half-century, the researchers say.
  6. Changing Patterns of Marriage and Family Life
    In 1960, 72% of American adults were married. By 2008, that share had fallen to 52%. At the same time, fewer women are becoming mothers, and those who do are having fewer children later in life.
  7. Declining Family Religious Socialization
    Religion is just not passed along from generation to generation the way it used to be. Fewer couples are getting married in religious ceremonies. When those couples become parents, they are less likely to have their children dedicated or baptized in a church.
  8. Increasing Impact of Digital Media and Web Technologies
    New research has found that the average user spends 26 hours a week emailing, texting and using social media and other forms of online communication.
  9. (or 8 ½) Aging Baby Boomers
    As the year 2011 began on January 1, the oldest members of the Baby Boom generation celebrated their 65th birthday. In fact, on that day, today, and for every day for the next 19 years, 10,000 baby boomers will reach age 65.

As I said, some of these trends—increased diversity, the influence of individualism—might sound like good news for Unitarian Universalism. Yet the fact that many, if not most, of our congregations have been losing members, suggests that all in all these driving forces are not moving people in our direction. While all this might give us some idea about why we—collectively, congregations in the United States—are in the situation that we’re in, what really interests me is the future of congregations in America. Is there even a place for church in the twenty-first century?

Which brings us to the title of Roberto’s book, Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation. His book is oriented toward the future, and to get there, he used something call “scenario thinking.” Scenario thinking is a way to take current circumstances and explore a number of different ways they might play out in the future. The first step is to look at some critical uncertainties. Since Roberto’s interested in what the future might hold for congregations and their ability to address people’s religious and spiritual needs, he chose these two uncertainties: “Will trends in American culture lead people to become more receptive to organized religion, and in particular Christianity, over the next decade or will trends lead people to become more resistant to organized religion and Christianity?” and “Will people’s hunger for and openness to God and the spiritual life increase over the next decade or will people’s hunger for and openness to God and the spiritual life decrease?”

Roberto took these two uncertainties and used them to envision four different scenarios. He did this by connecting the uncertainties into a 2×2 matrix, which created a set of four scenarios that describe possible futures for congregations and their role in addressing people’s religious and spiritual needs. So take the first uncertainty (will people become more receptive or more resistant to organized religion) and look at it vertically—receptive to organized religion up here; resistant to organized religion down here—then put the second uncertainty (will people have a high or low hunger for God and the spiritual life) and look at it horizontally—with high hunger for the spiritual life here [my left] and low hunger for the spiritual life here [my right], then you end up with these four scenarios:

  • Scenario #1. Vibrant Faith and Active Engagement (people of vibrant faith and active engagement in the church community)
  • Scenario #2. Spiritual but Not Religious (people who are spiritual but not religious, duh)
  • Scenario #3. Unaffiliated and Uninterested (people who are uninterested in the spiritual life and unaffiliated with religion)
  • Scenario #4. Participating but Uncommitted (people who participate occasionally but are not actively engaged or spiritually committed)

When Roberto first came up with these scenarios seven or eight years ago, say 2007, the year 2020 was over a decade away. Which of the scenarios might come to pass was still up for debate. But in the last five or six years, we’ve scene a fairly definite movement in a couple of directions: people’s interest in God and the spiritual life seems high. Just go to amazon.com and search for “spirituality” in Books. You’ll find 225,974 results, including Spirituality for Dummies. At the same time, people seem to be more and more resistant to organized religion. Even the Southern Baptists Convention has started to decline in membership. For me, this seems to indicate that the second scenario—Spiritual but Not Religious—is where we’re heading a culture.

So given that information, what’s a congregation to do? Roberto suggests some strategies—sixteen of them. Think of these as ways for congregations to stay relevant by addressing people’s religious and spiritual needs. Now before I get to these strategies, I’d like to give you some sense of what faith formation (or faith development) can mean for Unitarian Universalists. This comes from the Vision Statement of the UUA’s Tapestry of Faith program:

We envision children, youth, and adults who:

  • Know that they are lovable beings of infinite worth, imbued with powers of the soul, and obligated to use their gifts, talents, and potentials in the service of life;
  • Affirm that they are part of a Unitarian Universalist religious heritage and community of faith that has value and provides resources for living;
  • Accept that they are responsible for the stewardship and creative transformation of their religious heritage and community of faith;
  • Realize that they are moral agents, capable of making a difference in the lives of other people, challenging structures of social and political oppression, promoting the health and well-being of the planet, acting in the service of diversity, justice and compassion;
  • Recognize the need for community, affirming the importance of families, relationships and connections between and among the generations;
  • Appreciate the value of spiritual practice as a means of deepening faith and integrating beliefs and values with everyday life;
  • Experience hope, joy, mystery, healing, and personal transformation in the midst of life’s challenges.

When I talk think about Faith Formation in a Unitarian Universalist context, I’m thinking of everything a congregation does to promote this vision. So with that in mind, here are Roberto’s 16 Strategies for Addressing the Four Scenarios:

  1. Faith Formation through the Life of the Whole Church
  2. Faith Formation using Digital Media and Web Technologies
  3. Family Faith Formation
  4. Intergenerational Faith Formation
  5. Generational Faith Formation
  6. Milestones Faith Formation
  7. Faith Formation in Christian Practices
  8. Transforming the World: Engagement in and Formation for Service and Mission
  9. Spiritual Formation
  10. Multi-Ethnic Faith Formation
  11. Faith Formation for Spiritual Seekers
  12. Apprenticeships in Discipleship
  13. Pathways to Vibrant Faith and Active Engagement
  14. Faith Formation in Third Place Settings
  15. Empowering the Community to Share their Faith
  16. Interfaith Education and Dialogue

Not all the strategies apply to every scenario. For example, there’s really no way that the first strategy (Faith Formation through the Life of the Whole Church) could do much for people in scenarios #2 & #3, Spiritual but Not Religious or Uninterested and Unaffiliated, because folks in those scenarios just aren’t coming to church. Some strategies, however, apply to more than one of the scenarios. A few may work in all four.

Those are the scenarios that I’m the most interested in If a congregation is going to expend time and energy in responding to the forces that are contributing to the decline in church participation and attendance in the twenty-first century, then it only makes sense to invest in those strategies that have the potential to make the greatest impact. So here are the strategies that, according to Roberto, address all four scenarios:

  • Faith Formation using Digital media and Web Technologies
  • Milestones Faith Formation
  • Faith Formation in Christian Practices
  • Transforming the World: Engagement in and Formation for Service and mission
  • Spiritual Formation
  • Multi-Ethnic Faith Formation

I believe that if congregations are going to stay relevant in the twenty-first century, they’re going to need to very intentionally employ these strategies. If I had to pick a place to begin, I would choose Spiritual Formation. Why? Because all of these shifts in the religious landscape in the United States and around the world seem to indicate that something big is happening. Joanna Macy and David Korten call it “The Great Turning”; Phyllis Tickle calls it “The Great Emergence”; Elizabeth Drescher calls it “The Digital Reformation.” What ever you might call it, it’s happening locally and globally, individually and collectively. People are already looking for spiritual guidance as we make our way through it. That is why I believe that our liberal religious faith still has something to has something to offer.

We need to do things a bit differently, however. If organized religion has lost its appeal (and yes, in spite of the joke that goes, “I’m not a member of an organized religion, I’m a Unitarian Universalist,” people still see us as an organized religion) we need to rethink how we present our liberal religious faith. That’s why I agree with Rabbi Rami Sharpio when he says that what we need are independent centers of spiritual exploration. “What we need,” he says,

are new forms of spiritual community anchored in shared questions rather than shared answers; communities with many different teachers; communities that invite people to celebrate holy days from many traditions all recast to reveal their universal messages rather than to promote their parochial pieties. These would be independent centers of spiritual exploration where the question of who’s in and who’s out—the question that still dominates conventional religions—is mute; where children and adults can study the texts and teachings of the world’s great spiritual systems; where individuals and families can practice chanting, meditation, yoga and tai chi; where people of different backgrounds can gather to share their hopes, dreams, tragedies, life-cycle events, and quests for meaning.

Now to some this might sound like what we’re already doing, but to me it’s more of an aspiration. Our communities—not just Fargo and Moorhead, but all communities—need places where the free and responsible search for truth and meaning more than of one of seven principles, but the very heart and soul of what we do. Time, however, is running out. We already now what the headline for the next UU World article on membership will be: “UUA Membership Declines Again.” What I’m interested in is the headline this congregation is writing for itself, for this community, and for the world.

My friend and colleague Sue Sinnamon shared an interesting post from “author, speaker, activist, and public theologian” Brian McLaren called “Q & A: What About Unitarians?” The question (“Why hasn’t the Unitarian Universalist Church or those roughly affiliated seen a sharp rise in either the recent [2012 Pew Forum] survey or any other performed in the last few years?”) is in response to “Thoughts on the Nones,” a video McLaren had posted. In the video, MacLaren notes that the nones “don’t want to be part of a religious community that requires them to hold hostility toward the Other.” The questioner points out that Unitarian Universalism has “a long history in the United States (going back to abolitionism) of acceptance of individuals of many lifestyles, as well as a strong identity tied to charitable and political action.” Yet, the results of the Pew Forum survey “found that the number of Unitarian members was not a statistically viable number among survey respondents.” Whatever happened to the notion that Unitarian Universalism is “A Religion for Our Time“?

MacLaren offers some interesting insights. The one that really caught my eye was this: “the degree to which a religious community deconstructs without reconstructing will put it at a disadvantage. It not only must removed negatives that other communities have: it must have positives that other communities lack.” It seems to me that Unitarian Universalism has, indeed, removed a lot of “negatives that other communities have.” The problem is, perhaps, that we’re a little too self-congratulatory around this point. If the nones are looking for a non-hostile religion, we’re the one! But the nones, like other kinds of spiritual seekers, aren’t just looking for a religion that plays well with others. They could very well be looking for a religion that gets things done, both for themselves and for the world.

Which brings me to Doug Muder’s recent UUWorld article: “The surprising success of lifeboat faith.” The tagline for the article says it all: “Unitarian Universalism cannot thrive if we don’t at least understand the appeal of religions that give people identity and direction.” The Unitarian Universalism that is not thriving is the one that says, “Hey, look! We’ve got a pretty good product here. We embrace theological diversity, and we welcome different beliefs and affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. How cool is that!” Not a whole lot about identity and direction there. People are looking for more. According to Muder,

the appeal of religion lies in identity and orientation: Who am I? Who are my people? Why is my life important, and what am I supposed to be doing with it? The rapid change in the modern era has only increased the importance of those perennial questions and raised the value of answers that feel solid and steady.

Rather that being a religion for our time, let’s be the religion that gets things done. A religion that provides “answers that feel solid and steady” to those big questions Muder refers to. He’s got some great ideas about what those answers might look like. And if you haven’t seen the article yet, consider trying to answer them for yourself first. In the meantime, I came across this great quote from the conclusion of the UUA’s Commission on Appraisal’s 2005 report “Engaging Our Theological Diversity” [PDF]:

What would our UU faith be like if our congregations truly became the safe and welcoming place we aspire to create? If we truly did honor and celebrate both our theological diversity and our sources of unity? If we were willing to commit to spiritual discipline as deeply as to spiritual freedom? “Whether we now have the seeds of a liberating faith is not really the question. Deluding ourselves into thinking that admiring the seeds will make them grow is the issue at hand,” writes a contemporary UU prophet (Gordon McKeeman). What marvels might be possible if we took these seeds and planted and tended them? What wondrous blossoms might arise?

McLaren has a similar quote in his post: “Perhaps, as John Cobb says in his recent (excellent) book, Religions in the Making, the best contributions of Unitarians are in their future, and what they can be has not yet been fully manifested.” May it be so, friends. May it be so.

I was reading an article in Huffington Post by Skye Jethani about Megachurches (Megachurches: When Will The Bubble Burst?) when I ran across this unsettling quote: “On average 50 small churches close their doors every week in America.”Unitarian, universalist, church, online, ministry, welcoming, religion, beliefs, megachurches, small congregations, small churches What? Fifty small churches are closing their doors every week? That’s not very encouraging, especially for a denomination, like, say, the UUA, where two thirds of its congregations have 150 members or less. Does not bode well, if you ask me. And I think small congregations know this, too. Business as usual is not going to cut it any more. Small congregations in any denomination are going to find it more and more difficult to maintain the status quo, let alone grow. Which I why I’m so pleased that the Prairie Star District offered a Small Congregation Conference last weekend in Des Moines, Iowa.

The conference was the brainchild (love that word!) of the Rev. Michael Nelson of our congregation in Manhattan, Kansas (Go Wildcats!). Michael noticed that the UUA regularly sponsored conferences for large and midsize congregations, but had never, as far as he could tell, sponsored one for small congregations. So Michael contacted me and we talked things over and decided this needed to be done. Thanks to a Chalice Lighter grant from Prairie Star, we were able to afford to bring in a topnotch keynote speaker. And knowing that a prophet is seldom welcomed in his or her hometown, we decided to ask someone from outside of the district to be the main presenter at the conference. I’m happy to say that our choice, the Rev. Andrew Pakula from London, England, delivered the goods. Andy offered three presentations over the course of two days. On Friday he gave us the recent history of his congregation in London (check out their website at www.new-unity.org) which has gone from six members in the 2001 (yes, six) to around 35 in 2006 under the leadership of his predessor, and then from 35 to over 100 members in the last 5 years under Andy’s leadership. What’s really exciting about that growth is that 50% of those new members are young adults.

Andy’s follow up presentations on Saturday dealt with using social media and attracting young adults. We also had a variety of workshops led by some terrific people: the Rev. Meg Riley talked with folks about what CLF (Church of the Larger Fellowship) is doing to help small congregations; the Rev. Charlotte Cowtan offered information on the demographics of various communities around the district; the Rev. Thea Nietfield presented information on right relationships and conflict engagement; Lori Emison Clair and Moria Leu of the Des Moines congregation did workshops on membership and music, the Rev. Jill Jarvis & al. talked about moving toward ministry, and Tandi Rogers, UUA growth specialist, did two workshops on faith development in small congregations. The participants were equally stellar as well. We had 12 affilitated congregations from throughout the district represented, along with folks from three new fellowships forming in Prairie Star. All in all, it was a fantastic weekend. Hopefully there will be more events like this in the future.

If church had a Facebook page, I’d definitely like it. That’s because there are a lot of things I like about church. I like that we sing in church (there aren’t many places in American culture where people sing together, other than the Star Spangled Banner and Take Me Out to the Ball Game at Wrigley Field). We get to share our joys and concerns with a gathered community (I know, I know: J & S can be seriously abused…but when it’s handled well, say, when people have to write something down ahead of time and have it read by the minister, it’s a wonderful opportunity to feel like you’re part of something larger). I like to listen to choirs sing (my dad was a choir director…said that directing a choir was when he felt closest to God). I even like to hear a good sermon from time to time (but if you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know my tolerance for that is waning). I like teaching Sunday school (especially with the youngest ones…preschoolers need to know that there are people in the church who are really, really happy that they are here!). I freaking LOVE potlucks (fondest memories of my Methodist youth…where I first learned that you can use cottage cheese to replace some of the ricotta in lasagna). I love the way a sanctuary feels when nobody’s in it except for yourself (and perhaps the Deity Formerly Known as God). I love church libraries (they’re so earnest, especially the small ones). I love the trimmed lawns, the shade trees, the bushes, the flowers. I love that fact that people insist on supporting these institutions, and that they are there when we need them.

However, liking or loving church, no matter how genuine the emotion, is not going to be enough to save these institutions. If we’re going to survive, we need to bring new people into our doors, and new people aren’t going to be showing up just because some of us like church. It’s going to take a whole lot more. And that reminds me of this TED Talk by Benjamin Zander on music and passion (see below). I was introduced to it by John Roberto at a Faith Formation 2020 class. The big take away here comes at minute 16:51 when Zimmer says this about classical music:

Now, how would you walk — because you know, my profession, the music profession doesn’t see it that way. They say 3 percent of the population likes classical music. If only we could move it to 4 percent our problems would be over. I say, “How would you walk? How would you talk? How would you be if you thought 3 percent of the population likes classical music? If only we could move it to 4 percent. How would you walk? How would you talk? How would you be if you thought everybody loves classical music — they just haven’t found out about it yet.” (Laughter) See, these are totally different worlds.

I think that if church is going to survive, we need to act as if we thought everybody loves church as much as we do. That doesn’t mean, of course, that 100% of the people in the United States are going to start going to church if we walked that way. But it does mean, perhaps, that more people are going to find out why we church lovers think it’s so important. So…do you love church? And if so, what do you love the most about it?

Once upon a time, people who didn’t believe in the kind of God that spoke through those obnoxious GodSpeaks.com billboards (“What part of ‘Thou shalt not…’ didn’t you understand?”) could still talk about God by not talking about God. Instead, they could talk about the “God-shaped hole” or vacuum or void that existed in the heart of our being. It’s a pretty good maneuver when you think about it, one that was used by such luminaries as Saint Augustine and Blaise Pascal. No need to believe in the existence of God to engage in Godtalk. One could have a perfectly serviceable theological discussion around the circumference of that “terrifying bottomless abyss opening up inside us which we would do anything to fill” as a former history professor of mine described it. In fact, “God-shaped hole” is such a perfectly adequate metaphor or trope or image—I’m not exactly sure what it is—that it’s even been used as a title for a novel and as the title for a pop song in a movie soundtrack. Wait a minute. Now I do know what it is. It’s a cliché.

And like all good clichés, this one has pretty much run its course. Why? Because with every passing moment, humanity is coming up with more and more and more information to stuff down that “terrifying bottomless abyss.” In fact, it’s been said that “by some estimates in just a few years we will reach a point where all the information on the Internet will double every 72 hours.” Which means that the big hole that needs to be filled in our lives is no longer shaped like the Deity Formerly Known as God. It’s shape like Google. And if anyone out there can tell me what a Google-shape hole looks like, I’ll send them an invitation to Spotify. (Actually, I do have a few invitations to Spotify if you’re interested!) Oh, and by the way, at the moment “Google-shaped hole” is just a baby cliché, only about 70 results show up on Google, as opposed to 875,000 results for “God-shaped hole.” So feel free to use it for awhile.

Anyhoo. What this all means for those of us in the religion business (or the “prayer trade” as Brother Cavil called it on Battlestar Galactica) is that offering to fill the “God-shaped hole” in people isn’t going to cut it anymore. The DFKAG is losing ground anyway (see “Science and religion: God didn’t make man; man made gods“). People may still be trying to make sense of it all, but the traditional answers found by visiting the “Church Around the Corner” (even the Unitarian Universalist church around the corner) aren’t going to help them. The sphere of information we’ve surrounded ourselves with is on the verge of being so mystifying and so complex that it would bake the cookies of even the greatest minds of the past like Augustine and Pascal. The good news is that maybe, just maybe, people seeking to fill that “Google-shaped hole” might want to unplug for awhile and engage in a good old fashion face-to-face conversation about life, the universe, and everything. So there still may be a place for religious communities after all. But we’ve got to be ready. And this article is a good place to start: “Theology and the Church After Google: How This New Age Will Change Christianity.” If you haven’t read it yet, do. Really.

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