Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

July 17, 2011: “Merging the Mind and Spirit; Finding our Center, The 50th General Assembly”

I am what is known as a “GA Junkie,” someone who loves to attend our annual denomination wide General Assemblies; OK, even more than that; we GA Junkies need our annual “Fix” of the gathering of thousands of UUs which merge into a very large, but still loving beloved community, which only exists for less than a week, and then is gone. Some others compare it to the great mystical musical, “Brigadoon” which is about a village in Scotland which magically and mythically and mystically, appears once every 100 years for just a day. So, of course, that one day is very important, and if you happen to chance across that mythical village during that one day and were to, say fall in love, with a young lad or lassie that you meet, you must realize that you may never see them again unless you live another 100 years, and also, of course, you would be much older then them!

For about one week every year, in different parts of the country every year, GA comes into being, though I will have to admit, it seems like some people are aging! It is a magical time, a mystical experience of the formation of a congregation that is larger than any single church in our movement. The best of the preachers are usually invited to lead the many, daily, worship services, as well as national speakers on different topics and especially social justice. A big part of the reason that I attend GA, is that I like being a part of a congregation where I am just a member NOT a minister. I counted up the number of times I have gone and found that it is 25 years, half of the 50 years since the merger of the Unitarians with the Universalists. My first GA was here in Ohio, in Columbus, in 1981!

The stereotype of the Unitarians were that they were the brains, the mind, the intellectual stimulation that all surveys tell us we come to church for, and the Universalists were the heart, love, the spirit, which is often the second thing we say we come to church for because it implies connecting with other people as well as the sense of the divine. So my title of Merging the Mind and Spirit, though it must be pointed out that the stereotypes are just that, and many exceptions exist. We’ve been struggling to find our center, our theological or philosophical mission, and this 50th GA also spoke deeply about that, it being “compassion and connection;” I will argue that our center could also be a new word I am hereby coining for this occasion- “Mindspirit” that merging of the mind and the heart into a “both/and” rather than an “either/or”. What I might describe as an intelligent spirituality where both might be present and reason, one of of the Unitarian’s key principles would be combined with love, one of the Universalist terms. Where we can once again use the word, God, and be free to mean many different ways of understanding and experiencing.

One of the many new songs introduced at various worship services was one called “On Holy Ground” by Amy Carol Webb, which found inspiring:

Vs1: If life is a journey between birth and death
Then every step we take matters, and every breath
And each path we follow leads us somewhere
Or to someone to walk beside

Chorus: We’re on holy ground right where we are
We’re on holy ground under this shining star
We’re on holy ground when we reach for each other with our hearts
We’re on holy ground

Vs2: If we all are pilgrims between here and there
Then everyone we meet matters each day we share
And no one’s a stranger just a brother
Or a sister we didn’t know

Vs3: If there is a heaven beyond earth and sky
It’s made of moments here that matter with you and I
There’s no destination more full of grace
Than each place we meet again

Indeed it is the many worship services which is one of the primary reasons I go to GAs; at the end of the church year, my lamp is often burning low, and I need to be spiritually recharged and emotionally inspired. The music this year was especially moving, both literally and figuratively; people were swaying, clapping and even occasionally dancing! My spirit was recharged!

Ministers come early to Ministry days a day or two before GA starts, and our main worship service is the 25 and 50 year speakers, a 25 year and a 50 year ministry veteran. I realized that I have been in ministry 23 years! And as the 50 year veteran, Rev. Richard Gilbert said, the first 50 years are the hardest!

The final credentials report from this General Assembly shows that 4,082 people attended GA; of those, there were 2,059 delegates, including 410 ministers. General Assembly is the UUA’s national annual meeting with delegates invited from over a thousand congregations; like our individual churches, we are a democratic organization and the business of the people must include the delegates each year to pass resolutions, and different programs of social justice. Interestingly, to keep up with modern technology, delegates to General Assembly no longer have to all be at GA in order to participate in the UUA’s annual gathering. Delegates voted to allow off-site voting and participation so one can now attend on line rather than in person; hopefully by next year we can set up something where we can have more congregational participation in the business and the spirit, in the voting and in the worship services right here in this sanctuary, perhaps!

First the social justice issues: Actions of Immediate Witness are current issues that we need to vote on for our different congregations and social justice groups can work on and publicize, usually three different items. This year they are:

Protest Rep. Peter King’s Hearings on Muslim “Radicalization”

Support Southern California Supermarket Workers’ Struggle for Decent Wages and Benefits

Oppose Citizens United Support Free Speech for People- having to do with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that Corporations can donate to campaigns as if they were individuals and not subject to old restrictions.

Voted down was “Toward Ending the U.S. Military Engagement in Afghanistan.” These issues are recommended as topics for Congregations to discuss and act upon over the next year. Then there is a Statement of Conscience which is one issue important enough for the entire denomination to work on and the 2011 Statement of Conscience was “Ethical Eating: Food & Environmental Justice,” which we have discussed here and also emphasizing the Green Sanctuary movement which we have committed to.

“Aware of our interdependence, we acknowledge that eating ethically requires us to be mindful of the miracle of life we share with all beings. With gratitude for the food we have received, we strive to choose foods that minimize harm and are protective of the environment, consumers, farmers, and all those involved in food production and distribution.

Environmental justice includes the equitable distribution of both environmental burdens and benefits for populations of residents and workers. Marginalized people have often been able to find housing or work only in areas exposed to environmental pollutants, with consequent negative health and quality of life effects.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to address our relationship with food. Our Principles call for recognition of and respect for the other. As we search freely and responsibly for truth, meaning, and spiritual wholeness, we will make a variety of individual choices about food. Ethical eating is the application of our Principles to our food choices. What and how we eat has broad implications for our planet and society. Our values, Principles, and integrity call us to seek compassion, health, and sustainability in the production of food we raise or purchase.

Food production involving growing, processing, packaging, transporting, and distributing food has become a vast worldwide industry. The mass production of food often maximizes production while minimizing price. This mass production has greatly increased food supply, but has resulted in the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides with crops and the mistreatment of animals and workers in food production. Both this overuse and the large waste streams from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) result in pollution of water, land, and air.”

There is the actual hands on social justice issue that we actually demonstrate publicly about in the city that hosts the GA, this year, Charlotte, NC.; it is called “Public Witness” and this year was an interfaith rally, “Standing on the Side of Love with LGBT People Everywhere!” A gathering in a nearby park with hundreds of people in the yellow shirts which said Standing on the Side of Love along with banners that said the same thing, protesting NC’s trying to restrict same gender marriage and not giving equal rights in workplaces to LGBT People. We made the evening news and the front page of the Charlotte newspaper! And during the evening while a bunch of us were having a drink in the hotel bar, cheers erupted as loudly as if someone had just won a sports championship, came the news on TV that NY had just legalized same sex marriage! Our denomination has been at the forefront of that change as we have acted out our belief in compassion and equal rights for all.

Another important traditional part of GA is called “The Service of the Living Tradition” recognizing ministers who have just graduated from seminary and now receive “Preliminary Fellowship,” having been accredited by the Ministerial Fellowship committee, and now must have at least three years of service with annual evaluations by their church sent to the Committee, which then ultimately decides if the new minister is ready for “Final Fellowship” also recognized at this function. Retired ministers are recognized and finally those ministers who have died over the past year having served our congregations, some for many, many years, are memorialized. Then there is a worship service. This year’s preacher was Reverend Dr. Michael Schuler, who serves as senior minister in one of our largest and most architecturally important churches, the Madison, Wisconsin UU Church, designed by Franklin Lloyd Wright. The Sermon: “The Face of God or a Face in the Crowd?” quoted: “We may be a relatively small denomination,” former UUA president John Buehrens once remarked, “but look at it this way: We’re the largest, longest-lasting, most widely dispersed therapy program for people with authority issues that American culture has ever seen.” Often as not, the focal point for this pervasive resistance to authority is the minister.”

Some of the more business oriented developments was the changing of the name of the Thomas Jefferson District, Virginia, W. Va, NC, SC, Kentucky, to South East District, because Jefferson was a slave owner. Ironically, the movement to change the name started at a GA in Charlotte more than 19 years ago on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson, and a period costume ball was to be an event. One of the African American woman ministers stood up and asked if she was expected to come in chains and rags, since that would have been her period costume! As you can imagine, we were caught red-faced in our own unconscious racism.

Also the size of the UUA board was reduced from 28 to 14. Our UUA president, Peter Morales talked much about growth, of course, and how we’re not! He was the minister of a thriving growing church in Golden Colorado, and had been in the UUA administration on growth, but says we need to do three things to grow, and, if we don’t grow we die! He sums it up by saying we must do three things- “Get Religion, Grow Leaders, and Cross Borders,” or what I would say, reach out!

What We Must Do Spiritual and Organizational Challenges; Get Religion

Religion is more about what we love than what we think – religion beyond belief

Religion is about what binds us together

Gathered Here-a program and tool to help us discover our common passions.

We must go beyond intellectual stimulation-that’s not what those growing numbers of people who are leaving traditional churches and who are answering increasingly “None of the Above,” in religious surveys are looking for..

Grow Leaders

  • Trust as a critical spiritual issue for us
  • Recruit, support, train, mentor and empower both the laity and ministers

Cross Borders

  • Culture
  • Class
  • Crossing borders as a spiritual challenge-openness to life
  • Crossing borders as our essential spiritual heritage Become multicultural, think about how we must change if we are to attract new, especially young adult members with children.

I will talk next Sunday about two of the great highlights of inspiration, Comparative Religion scholar and popular author Karen Armstrong’s talk on her book, The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and co-minister of the Rochester, NY UU Church Rev. Kaaren Anderson’s sermon for Sunday morning Worship, “Just Connect,” which I believe, was the high point and the wrap up of this years GA in her talk about Compassion and Connection being the center of our faith. I am currently reading Armstrong’s book and finding it helpful in beloved community building as well as individual spiritual growth.

Cathie and I also listen to an entire college course from the Teaching Company on “Introduction to the New Testament” by Bart Ehrman, a professor of religion at Duke University and author of numerous books including a best seller, “Misquoting Jesus and other Biblical Errors.” It was an appropriate cap to our GA experience, helping us relate our Christian heritage to our UUism, since it is so related to interpretation and universal compassion, and, of course, the religious relationship, that sacred and human connection of which we are a part. It is that religious relationship of deep and universal compassion that helps us through those times of difficulty, however we translate our theology, our relation to one another, our “not having to think alike to walk together,” our covenant with one another to try to live our lives religiously with love being the guidepost, with how we treat one another and the rest of the world being the true indicator of our religion, not the discussions about religion.

I don’t know about you, but I find that my ego so often gets in the way of my spiritual life; Oh Lord, I want my way too often rather than the best or more loving way; help me find the humility and love to let go of having my own way! Help me love better and without limit; help me forgive the shortcomings of others when my own list is so long! Help me help others and be more generous of mind, spirit, hands and pocketbook! May our love for each other be deepened and strengthened here; may we find what we so truly need here; may we work tirelessly and unselfishly toward the cocreating of beloved community within this holy place, this religious dimension.