Vanessa Southern

The following sermon was proclaimed at the 2013 General Assembly’s Service of the Living Tradition.  There is a video of the full service with the sermon starting at 1:21. I do encourage you to experience the whole worship and turn up the music for a special treat!

If after experiencing this inspiring invitation to live Unitarian Universalism large, into this new Awakening, this Age of Spirit, you’d like to share ideas and strategies and experiments, please join the FaceBook conversation at Unitarian Universalists Exploring Congregations & Beyond.

You can also give to Faithful Risk, which honors former UUA Moderator Gini Courter’s commitment to creative Unitarian Universalist ministries in and beyond congregations. Your donations to Faithful Risk will help support UUFund, a Unitarian Universalist crowd funding platform currently under development that is itself an entrepreneurial ministry to our movement.


Standing at the Edge: The Next Great Awakening

The Rev. Vanessa Southern


Imagine, I am standing on the edge of a ledge off the back of a boat that is rocking in pretty decent waves. I have 8 pounds of weight strapped around my waist, and another 40—they tell me, though it feels like more—strapped to my back. My size 12 feet are now even more absurdly large because they are covered in flippers, so I look like a redheaded Donald Duck. Only I can’t quack because they stuck some tube in my face and told me to breathe through it while the mask that covers my favorite breathing orifice, my nose, and my eyes, despite the instructor’s best preventative measures, is fogging. So, I can’t walk, or breathe the way I’d like to, and the world is getting misty, which might be nice and atmospheric except that they are also now telling me to hold on to my mask and regulator and jump…like this [show fingers splayed] which as we all know is crazy. No one jumps like this. At the very least it is inelegant but at the moment, I have lost all dignity already and I am only concerned, truth be told, about survival.

So is my Lizard Brain. Do you know Lizard Brain? It is that part of our brains that has been around since wooly mammoths whose job it is to keep us alive and warn us of danger. Lizard Brain has come for a chat.

Actually, mine is in a panic. First she tells me to step back from the ledge, as if I am someone on the 8th floor of a New York apartment building about to take my life. Then she asks why I don’t just take all this ridiculous stuff off, and instead just enjoy a little sun. When I don’t listen she gets more hysterical: She wonders aloud sarcastically why they don’t just put a noose around my neck too. Finally, she tries the pastoral approach. She tells me I don’t have to be embarrassed about bailing on the birthday gift of a dive lesson. That a good friend will understand.

I listen. I take it in. Then I cover my face, like the instructor tells me to, and I jump. And a whole new world opens up, one just below the surface of what I know and trust.

Why am I telling you this?

It is relevant, I think, to this train that’s coming. The one that we don’t need a ticket for that requires us to drop some baggage before we get on board. I’m telling you because think we are standing at the edge, preparing to leap into a world beyond what we know and trust.

I am talking, my friends and colleagues, about the religious revolution that seems headed our way. Diana Butler Bass, writer and professor of religious studies, calls this moment “The Great Turning”. William McLoughlin, historian of religion and former professor at Brown University fifty years ago predicted the signs of what he called the “Fourth Great Awakening”.

What they are saying certainly makes sense of things we are hearing and seeing all around us. It makes sense of all the cultural changes and upheavals that Peter Morales has been calling to our attention; that Fred Muir explored in last year’s Berry Street Lecture; that the Pew Survey on Religion found ways to quantify; and Faith Formation 2020 put into lists. It makes sense of all the changes that so many of our lay and ordained leaders are already wrestling to incorporate into their sense of what we must become.

You know the facts as well as I do—

  • Mainstream denominations are on the decline;
  • The “nones”—those who, when asked to identify their religious affiliation, answered “none”—the “nones” are on the rise;
  • Increasing numbers of people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (maybe some of you are among them);
  • More and more families and marriages, like my own, are made up of folks of mixed religious and racial and ethnic backgrounds, and
  • In the rising generation of adults 18-35 these trends are growing fastest.

When asked why they reject “religion” this growing cohort of people, when they do, reject it because they associate it with words like narrow, judgmental, homophobic.

“The Age of Belief” or Dogma is out, says Harvard Professor Harvey Cox. Enter: “The Age of Spirit.”

Cox and Bass, leaders of the Emergent Church Movement and others, say increasingly people are looking for a more direct experience of the divine; one unmediated by religious leaders or staid ritual or dusty doctrine. They bring to their spiritual and religious lives an ethic informed by a world that has grown smaller and more clearly interdependent; a world in which differences of race, gender and sexual orientation blend and brush up against each other all the time. Where they gather they want professed truths to be visible and in action. They are tired of religion getting in the way rather than paving it.

In this future, increasingly shaped by the radical democracy and full and open participatory influence of the internet, if people don’t find a community they like, they will make their own; in one great flash mob of religiosity.

The religious wave washing over us is made up of people who have no innate love of institutions. Why would they? In the last decade alone we have watched institutions launch the war in Iraq without proof of weapons of mass destruction. Institutions allowed the bundling of sub-prime mortgages that collapsed the economy into which many people entered for the first time looking for jobs that were not there. And religious institutionsfought and split over the rejection of gay and lesbian clergy. Religious institutions protected priests over children.

In other words, in this new world, congregations whose mission is just to maintain the congregation, and denominations whose de facto mission is simply to keep the bureaucracy alive, are out. What is in are communities alive to spirit, people gathered who question, doubt, struggle, live with ambiguity, serve directly, are ecologically minded and affirming of the pluralism across all real and supposed differences. These are the only communities this cohort of adults, growing in size and strength by the year, will join and offer its allegiance to.

Perhaps you are thinking as I was when I read all of this, this is great!!!! Perhaps under your breath you just started singing: “We are who you have been waiting for!” It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? We love questions and doubt too, you want to scream out. “Deeds over creeds, baby! We are with you.” We live pluralism and interfaith dialog, some of us in our own homes. Some of our best ministers and lay leaders, let alone friends, lovers and children are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer folk.

In fact, this year, I co-officiated at the first same-sex wedding at West Point Chapel—for Unitarian Universalists Penny Gnesin and Sue Fulton. How about a shout out for them and their work on behalf of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It was a moment in history. And looming right beside the joy was the sadness that the Defilement of Marriage Act—that’s what DOMA stands for doesn’t it?—that DOMA still stood as law, still stands. And so soldiers and their wives and husbands are still second class citizens in the military if their partners are of the same sex. Though their blood—pardon the image—still runs as red, white and blue.

But we were there and in places like that this year all over the nation. In statehouses and city halls, hanging banners and demanding the nation make good on its promissory note again—the one that promises equality and justice for all. We don’t want religion to get in the way either. We want it to pave the way and we are working to make it so.

We get this wave of the future, this Age of Spirit because we have been swimming in it, dancing with it, wrestling to live it for years, decades? Maybe centuries.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean our work of preparing ourselves for the future is done.

Cox and Bass say this Age of Spirit may be a little more chaotic than we are used to. It may be more like the early stages of all faith traditions, than it will be like the age just past with its doctrines, and procedures and institutional focus. “In the beginning,” writes Andy Stanley, the founder or Northpoint Ministries in Atlanta, “In the beginning the church was a gloriously messy movement.” Not bound by creed or hierarchy, the early church was bound by a pretty clear mission, which was figuring out what it meant to live the teachings and example of its founding prophet, Jesus, and how to usher in “the coming of God’s Reign of Shalom”—of peace, of justice and love.

This awakening will be about going back to those basics—about being focused back on core mission, and being willing to question whatever inherited patterns get in the way of serving and being alive to it. “Be married to mission,” says Stanley, and date everything else. Date everything else!

What might that mean? Does that feel intimidating to you? It does to me. It involves lots of uncertainty about what we lose and what we gain. For some of us it will mean sitting with a pretty chatty Lizard brain warning of all the dire possibilities that come with each risk or change.

But it is also exciting.

And it might just be fun.

I knew one person who was the most alive-to-life spirit-filled person I have ever met. If she had a mission that would have been it, and very little got in her way of living it. No norm, no convention was more important than responding to what life demanded of her in a moment. So, taking road trips with her meant paying the tolls for the people behind you. Going to lunch with her meant sending a piece of cake or pie to the person across the restaurant who looked like life had just caved in under them. Almost nothing was completely routine with Toni around.

The quintessential Toni moment took place at a stop light. We were out running some errand when a song came on the radio. It was a song that we loved and loved to dance to. So, we were trying to do so but the car seemed too small for all this joy and right about then we pulled up to a red light. Before I knew what was happening, Toni turned up the music, opened the door, unbuckled her seat belt and out she went out into the street to dance. Hair flying, smile across her face, she danced and people driving by honked, others joined her from inside their cars. Laugher and joy erupted all around.

The mission was to be alive to life, spirited-filled. Everything else took its rightful, auxilliary place.

I am not saying that we have to dance in traffic, you and I. I am saying there are times we might want to throw off what holds us back especially if it is getting in the way of what spirit and mission require of us. We are a pretty flexible lot but even for us radical innovations will, with time, become traditions, and traditions with more time often become fossilized artifacts. Sometimes we have to get back to basics, then risk and experiment, take a chance we’ll look foolish, be a bit incompetent to become more alive to what it looks like to live those commitments for this age, and in our case for the “Great Turning” that is upon us.

The good news is I think we are already doing this. Already grounding ourselves pretty clearly in core mission and taking risks.

  • As we speak we are preparing to leave a headquarters with a stately address, so we can have the offices with 21st Century technology and accessible space that speak to our future more than our past;
  • We have been asking and answering what it means to Stand on the Side of Love and keeping that core piece of witness front and center;
  • We are talking this whole GA about the glue that holds a non-creedal community together across difference and through chaos, namely the covenantal promises we make to one another;
  • We are experimenting with reaching beyond our walls and using technology to broaden our embrace;
  • We are opening our eyes to what interpersonal skills and cultural competencies we need to be truly welcoming in this pluralistic, multicultural world;
  • And some of our ministers, particularly newer minted ones, are doing all kinds of great experimentation. Some have started coffee houses with justice programming, and small house church communities, and one newly gathering community is talking about meeting in a tent, amidst an urban community garden. These ministers and lay folks are casting off some inherited patterns to see what new ways of being together might invite to dwell among us.

And I would bet your church has a few examples you could throw in. My own church just passed a mission statement that says we are “a radically inclusive religious community that feeds the human spirit and heals the world.” As a result of that this year our theme for the year will be “Living the Mission Impossible” and in October I expect we will rip up a mortgage on a property next door. It is a property the powers-that-be said we didn’t have the ability on short notice, to buy, but spirit and mission told us we had to. $2.5 million dollars pledged in record time and paid off in two years. Spirit is a powerful partner.

What will it take for us to step into this revolution as full partners and participants? No one really knows. It’s emerging. It’s a paradigm shift of some kind; an adaptive change. But I can think of a few things it will mean.

  • Surely it will mean abolishing stinginess. Big missions don’t happen on starvation budgets. And on average we give 1 ½ percent of income to our congregations. Really? That is unworthy of us. We need to stop pretending we are just careful with our money and just get crazy generous.
  • Second, I think we also need to admit that no perfect form of governance alone will create a congregation or an Association that does great things. The best assurance of great things is people gathered in the spirit of collaboration and trust. So we need to make that a given and not spend too many years hammering out the governance structure… Even as we do good organizational development;
  • Lastly, you and I have to become great experimenters in our laboratories of religious life. We have to be like 1000 R & D departments, reporting in daily from our congregations and community ministries about where our experiments brought faith more alive and where they have failed. We have to laugh and tell stories of our victories and wipe-out-face-plants and be pioneers of the spirit; entrepreneurs of soul and service. Married to mission, dating everything else. We must do this to be partners and co-creators of the next great awakening.

Emerson told us not to any take second hand truths, but generation after generation we take two truths as our own, and these two give the living tradition its continuity.

First, is a commitment to a Love that refuses to honor false and constructed boundaries between us. This is the love that banished hell from religious imagination, then put us to work banishing it everywhere else. The expanse of this Love’s embrace will, in the end, be the best judge of the worth of our living.

Second, and related, is the Unity we affirm beyond all divisions real or imagined. Interdependent web of all existence, injustice anywhere as a threat to justice everywhere, all creation woven into one garment of destiny. Ecologically, theologically, politically, economically, this is the reality we seek not to forget. That we are one. Remembering it breaks us wide open generation after generation to both deep pain and great joy and wisdom.

Love and Unity. These are our enduring mission.

Some day we will have to answer for these. What did we make of them? How did we serve them? To this dream and purpose you and I are married.

Which is why we find ourselves standing here, facing these waters. It is why we have awkward new gear strapped on our backs, and even though some old habits are working a bit against us, we are preparing ourselves to leap.

Because a train is coming, my fellow pioneers of this faith. Love and Unity wait to take their rightful place front and center on the human stage. Spirit wants to claim the age. It is a Great Awakening for which we have been preparing for a lifetime. And for this, we are asked to leap just beyond the surface of what we know and trust. “This is the time,” writes poet Sonia Sanchez, “for the creative human being.”

Before you dive the instructor tells you there are two things you have to remember. Only two.

“The first is just to remember to breathe.” “Breath” that word so close to spirit. That which anchors us to life and its call.

“The second thing to remember,” he says, “is never to dive alone.” “Once you are in, you can take my hand,” he tells you.

So you reach up to secure the mask, walk to the edge, and you do that crazy leap they tell you you must. When you land, he reaches out and you take his hand.

Breath and that hand will be what makes the scary possible. And so the adventure begins.

The rest, the rest is still Unwritten.



vanessa-pinkGuest blogger Rev. Vanessa Southern, the minister of The Unitarian Church in Summit, NJ, is the consummate Congregations & Beyond minister.  Read more about her ministry for examples you might want to try out yourself!

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