Aug. 15th, 2016

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People often ask me about my church and about why I belong to a religious community and regularly attend services there. It's not a very common practice among my friends and there's certainly been enough evil done by organized religions to make people reasonably wary of them. Some of my reasons apply only to my congregation and to my denomination, but others are more widely applicable. Proselytizing is pretty uncomfortable for me, but I figured it would be useful to have my answers gathered in one place. I'm also interested to come back to this post and see how my answers, or the priority they have for me, change over time.

First, a little background. I'm a Unitarian Universalist of relatively recent vintage. My father was a United Church of Christ minister. The two denominations are closely related, both descending from the Pilgrims and splitting in the early part of the 19th century. Most village greens in New England have a big church that is one or the other, depending on who kept the building after the schism. So while the theology of each have changed significantly since the split, there are still many traditions they hold in common, which is probably part of why the UU feels so comfortable to me. Jason was not raised in a church, but when I said that it was something important to me, he agreed to come along and has been surprised by how meaningful it is for him, particularly singing in the choir.

- A Multi-Generational Community - There are very few opportunities in our society to develop relationships across generations. This is one of the things I value from my upbringing--it was very noticeable in college, when people my age would often tell me they just weren't comfortable with children, or old people. I wanted Alice to have that experience and didn't realize how much I had missed it myself. Having women ten-, fifteen-, twenty-, thirty years older than myself as role models has been a wonderful change in my life. And then there are our amazing youth--more than fifty high school kids bring their experiences to our worship and the life of our community and when people complain about kids today, I can honestly say that I look forward to living in the world that they will create. Seeing a path for my daughter to grow up held and challenged by this community is an incredible gift.

- A Focus for Social Justice - Part of our Mission Statement is "to challenge the excesses and injustices of our time." As a congregation we support a wide variety of other organizations within our local community and around the world that I probably never would have known about. There are opportunities to hear from people impacted by the injustices of our society, who are personally struggling with the challenges of our world in ways that never touch my life directly. There are opportunities to learn about issues and calls to action and pointers to ways to live our faith in the world. Yes, I could do most of this on my own, but the truth is that I didn't and probably wouldn't, and that being part of an organization leverages my own efforts in powerful ways. And social justice is the major focus of our program for youth--each year they are led in organizing and fundraising around a particular issue (which they choose) and going on every-other-year service trips (which they research and organize), learning that saving the world requires a lot of work, but that they are capable of learning those skills and making a difference in their own communities and around the world.

- A Support Network - Our congregation fields a team of six Lay Ministers who take on much of the pastoral care of our congregation--visiting people who are in the hospital or shut in by age and illness, listening to people who are going through life's challenges and helping them to find resources, paying attention to who's struggling and could use the attention of our community. They coordinate a Wider Network of Care of over a hundred people who have volunteered to send cards, do errands, provide meals, knit prayer shawls, etc. for those in need. There are also a variety of small groups that provide opportunities for deeper connections within our large community, people who will notice when things get rough, or when someone stops showing up. Many of us have families who can take on this work and many of us have a good community of friends--and I try to do what I can for my friends and members of my other communities, like Theatre@First--but I know what a huge burden crises can be for the one or two people closest and I take a great deal of comfort from knowing that there is a whole community organized to help us, to help my family if I am incapacitated, to help me when I need it. Very few communities are organized around the major changes in our lives and capable of celebrating and supporting us through them from cradle to grave, and being part of one is a source of great reassurance and security for me.

- A Spiritual Home - This is another thing I didn't know that I was missing until I found it. I do think that it's important to figure out what you think about the world, what you believe, what framework you can use to evaluate the events of your life. One of the arguments I gave Jason for attending services was that I wanted give Alice the example that these questions are worthy of at least an hour a week of one's time. What I found is that it is a source of joy to spend that time with other people tackling the same questions, and to learn what other questions different people wrestle with, to be part of a community that isn't afraid to confront serious topics, without taking themselves too seriously. For me, the UU is a great fit--the Seven Principles are all things that I can whole-heartedly embrace, their openness to finding truth from a wide variety of sources fits my own way of thinking, and their focus on Standing on the Side of Love is one of the best filters I have ever found for approaching the world.

First Parish itself is the single best community of people I have ever experienced--I frequently say and am constantly finding that almost every person there is someone I can connect with deeply, if given the opportunity, someone who has their own amazing story and talents to share. Each week I look through the events organized by and for our congregation and realize that if I stopped doing everything else in my life, I could lead a full and fascinating one right there. I don't agree with every perspective offered, I don't resonate with every ritual we perform, and I don't enjoy every activity that we engage in, but I strongly support the variety of voices that we welcome and the freedom we take for ourselves to disagree and to find meaning in wider contexts than any one person can grasp. When I first started attending services, I found myself in tears almost every week, as my heart was broken open and my mind was stretched to wider horizons. Nowadays that's a rarer experience--I think I've adjusted to the radical trust and transformational experience that we strive to achieve--but I can still be surprised by the emotions that well up at the joy of a hymn, the profound resonance of a prayer, the sadness of shared grief, the excitement of shared love. And having a setting where those reactions are valued and welcome, where the point is to challenge us and comfort us, is invaluable to me.


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