Tag Archives: UU

Seeking Home: A Young Adult Gathering

I’m a millennial young adult. Why I still believe in faith community, and in Unitarian Universalism

Fort Worth. Seattle. Denver. Arlington. Columbia, Missouri. Five of us, young adults from across the South and West, huddled in the Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church office at one in the morning and strategized for the big Sunday morning service just hours away.

As I looked at each face, all betraying exhaustion yet each still filled with determination, a simple message permeated the room.

We’ve got this.

Oh home, let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you

All weekend our worship quintet, along with the event’s general leadership team and fifty other young adults, had been working to build community at our Winter Gathering—no easy task considering attendees’ birth years ranged from 1979, or the year of Village People and Gloria Gaynor, to 1996, when Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ ruled the airwaves.

In Unitarian Universalism much has been made about the dearth of YA programming, with graduating high school folks feeling they are not being “bridged out” of youth group, but rather “pushed off a cliff,” with little support waiting for them. Youth rallies and “cons” touched their souls; adult worship services too often leave them cold.

Trying to build a young adult worship community—or else a spiritual space truly welcoming to young adults–has always been a challenge. We’ve read the articles. Millennials are less likely to go to church, to identify as religious, and to believe in God. Often our generation gets blamed for our absence from religious spaces. We’re told that we are too focused on our cell phones and individual lives to aim for anything greater.

It’s easy to believe such statements, to accept them as fact—even as members of this generation. Often we are quick to believe the worst about one another, and ourselves. Perhaps, though, we ought to heed wisdom from one of my generation’s favorite movie characters, The Lion King’s Rafiki, and “look harder.”

Four months ago a team of young adults–some of whom had, prior to the event, never met–united virtually and planned worships, justice actions, workshops, discussions on religious covenant, and more. Over fifty people took time away from their families to travel to the Houston area on the weekend after Christmas, and to make a statement: we are about something.

The late men’s basketball coach Jimmy Valvano said, “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day.” And so, for three days, we did. It was an unapologetically spiritual, religious space. We danced, we laughed, we stayed up late. We sang ‘Amazing Grace’ tearfully arm-in-arm at midnight, and ‘I’m On A Boat’ at 1:30 am another night. Both were spiritual experiences for many.

We listened as people found their voices, in some cases for the first time in years. Those who loved their voices were encouraged to use them less. We were called to action, to live out our UU values, and to work for environmental, racial, and economic justice. We struggled through covenant building and then through covenant following. We discussed body image and sexuality and mental health. What most of us found was something profoundly messy, and imperfect, and beautiful.
Many of us, we found grace. We found hope. And through struggle, we found home—or the beginnings of it.

That word—home–undergirded our time together.  For many in our age range, home eludes us. Perhaps we have gone away to school. We are where we grew up, and it no longer feels like home. We may not be fully welcome at home anymore, or we have grown beyond it. We are forging new homes with families and friends of our own.
 
Oh home, let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you

It was this exploration of home that brought five Unitarian Universalist young adults together, poring over worship outlines at one in the morning as friends danced the Wobble two rooms over. Our goal was to bring two messages to the suburban Houston congregation the next morning.

The first message, the stated theme of the service, was to lift up the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, to call for more Unitarian Universalists to join the struggle, and to make a case that racial justice has always been about the quest for black Americans, and other folks of color, to find home in the midst of discrimination.
Speaking truths at home, as Jesus did at the synagogue in Nazareth and Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni did/do right here in America, likely means being hated and reviled. We argued that we must combat such hatred with support and love and solidarity.

Our second message—our latent statement of purpose—was, to quote another seminal millennial film, to bring it. Through song and impassioned readings and poems and story and laughter and silent meditation and fiery preaching, we strived to show what multigenerational, multicultural worship can do. Can be. Can feel like. Worship—and faith community more generally– can do more than make us think—it can make us laugh, make us cry, make us sing.

Worship can call us to action, call us to justice, call us home.

Home was never meant to be easy.

Our faith is hard. People who don’t or can’t agree, who struggle to understand one another, nevertheless stay together and covenant together.

Through these experiences—an oft-challenging yet ultimately rewarding young adult gathering, and a YA-led, boomer-musically-supported Sunday morning service full of tears, laughs, and energy—I find myself with some hopes for Unitarian Universalism going forward.

I hope that when we come together, we bring our whole selves, and not just our minds. I hope we heed Emerson’s warning in his 1838 Divinity School Address, about the preacher in the snow storm:

I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more…A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it.

Emerson believed “The true preacher can be known…that he deals out to the people his life,–life passed through the fire of thought.”
May we bring our minds and willingness to reason; may we also bring a willingness to laugh, to weep, to dance, to share our stories. May we truly come alive. May we bring a willingness to listen and be silent together.  May we be willing to make some noise. May we be willing to work for justice and change our ways when needed.
When we do these things, tough as they are, there’s little we can’t achieve.

Home was never meant to be easy. Home is hard work. All over, Unitarian Universalists of all ages and races and backgrounds are working to find home. To build home–together.

Lincoln’s Melancholy: A Sermon

I delivered this sermon at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church, where I serve as the Director of Faith Formation.

Lincoln’s Melancholy

Sixteen months ago life, it seemed, was good. I was in my second year at divinity school, my time as Ministerial Intern at First Parish in Cambridge was in full swing, and I had it all figured out.

Graduate from Harvard Divinity School, do well, get a ministry job at a sweet church, do well, travel coast to coast preaching our faith’s message of radical love and justice, become known nationally as a great leader in Unitarian Universalism, turn thirty.
I’m not really kidding, sadly.

Sixteen months ago, if you had told me I would be here working at Prairie UU, I don’t think I’d have believed you. Yet here I am. And thank goodness. Well, for me. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t!

In 2005, historian Joshua Wolf Shenk published Lincoln’s Melancholy. It was, and is, a groundbreaking book not merely because it introduced to a wider audience Lincoln’s struggle with what we now call depression, but because its thesis is that Lincoln’s depression fueled his greatness. Shenk suggests a reframing of depression towards something more than an illness to get over, but something that can, if we go through it, lead us to great things.

I bring to you Shenk’s account of Lincoln’s lifelong struggle with depression because it resonates with me personally, and because, whether the term ‘depression’ is something near or far from your experience, Lincoln’s difficulties with self-inflicted pressure, expectation management, and search for vocation are painful realities many of us navigate.

One of the most detrimental thoughts one can have in one’s depression is some variation of this: “I have a good life. I shouldn’t feel this way.” Similarly, friends and family alike, trying to be helpful, can list off sixteen good things about your life—to which we might reply, “Yes, that’s great, but how does that help us get out of bed?”

Here, I want to make a distinction that is key to the rest of our exploration of depression. There are two phrases—the dark night of the body, and the dark night of the soul, that speak to distinct manifestations of depression. Some depressions are chemical, having little to do with circumstance. Other depressions and times of deep sadness relate more to “the dark night of the soul,” or discontent with one’s present reality. Many, of course, have elements of both. It should also be said that depression is a tough thing to talk about, and is even tougher to analyze. As with any sermon from a UU pulpit, all I can do, or would ever want to do, is speak my own truth.

To continue, Shenk argues that Lincoln’s talent and ambition, combined with genetics, teamed up to bring him down in a series of what we’d call “severe depressive episodes” in his early thirties. Shenk writes: “The very irony of Lincoln’s situation…is that the very successes that could prop him up also exerted an equally powerful force that could tear him down.” And for a time, it did tear him down. Sufferers of depression such as Lincoln wonder if their moods will ever lift.

Psychologist Lauren Slater continues the point: “These fears are fifty percent of what it is to be melancholy. If you were to be really, really depressed but knew that it would end in five days, it wouldn’t be depression.”

So it isn’t just that things are bad, but also that it feels like there’s no way out.

So it was as I waded further into my second year at Harvard Divinity. Somewhere along the way last year, I began caring more about the perception others held of me and less about actually doing good work, or of actually serving others. I cared more about seeming great and less about being great. I got involved in every committee, every school activity, and just lost my way.

I took on more and more responsibilities. Of course, the more I took on—student government, preaching opportunities, leadership positions—the less well I did any one thing. I lost all perspective.

The things (aside from economic and academic privilege in my upbringing) that got me to Harvard—healthy friendships, listening to my inner voice, and family bonds—fell by the wayside in favor of a desire to feel important and successful. I let down my friends, mistreated those closest to me, and rarely spoke with my family.

Obsessed with success, I failed.

I realized my life was crumbling, and depression took over. I fought and fought to hold on to the life I had, but to quote from The Replacements, the harder I fought, the deeper I sank.

I looked up and it was August 2013. No longer on the ministry track, no longer a Harvard student (with no Masters), and no longer in Cambridge, I’d seemingly lost everything. I had no job and little hope things would improve.

I couldn’t get past seeing myself as a failure. So many people rooted for me and helped me, yet there I was, Ivy League dropout, lying on the couch, hopeless and pathetic.

William Stafford wrote, “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” It is with these words that spiritual leader Parker Palmer begins his book Let Your Life Speak. I really think half of my religious friends—or the ones who knew how down I was—recommended this book to me. We talk a lot about Parker Palmer here at Prairie.

Parker Palmer helped me understand part of why I was so down: what I had been doing at Harvard was not my life. Palmer believes that the self seeks wholeness, and that to try and live the life others think we should lead is a recipe for deep sadness and profound despair.

“True self,” he writes, “when violated, will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor its truth.”

Lincoln, in that “most miserable man living” 1841 letter, said, “I must die or be better, it appears to me.” He wondered if he would make it. Eventually, he emerged, and turned to the question of how he would live. It is this question that haunts many of us. How will we live these lives of ours?

Depression and melancholy aren’t easy things to talk about. It’s kinda hard to give a fiery, passionate sermon about deep sadness.

But I have to say, Prairie, that I do feel fired up about this topic, that I do feel passionate about these hidden struggles, that welcoming them can actually inform the work we do here.

I think there are three main lessons we can take from Lincoln’s journey. The first is, as my mom advised concerning my preaching: “Tell more jokes.” Lincoln joked all the time. It became a healthy deflection of his sadness.

The second is that Lincoln didn’t go it alone. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, there were weeks where Lincoln’s friends went everywhere with him for his own safety—from himself. His friends kept an eye on him, wrote to him, and let him know, again and again: “Abe, you are not alone.”

The third lesson—and this is where I want to spend the remainder of our time together—is that Lincoln’s depression helped him be a great president and, more importantly, a courageous and empathetic human being. I’m not saying that you need to go through real struggle to be either. But the depth of Lincoln’s sorrow afforded him extraordinary gifts of bravery and understanding.

On December 23, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln took the time to write a letter to a young woman whose father had died. The letter is filled, not with empty condolences, but with real empathy. Lincoln understood her sorrow because had been there. He wrote: “Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You ca not now realize that you will ever feel better…[but] you are sure to be happy again. I have had experience enough to know what I say.”

The first time I read that letter—and our middle and high schoolers are reading it in full in religious education today—I cried. The second time I read it, I cried again. In the heart of one of our country’s ugliest hours, Lincoln took a minute to truly be with someone who felt sorrow would never leave her. That’s power. That’s leadership.

And it is this message I want to leave you with today. I’m still getting to know all of you, and you’re just getting to know me. One thing people have said some is that I have a lot of energy—that I have a lot of passion for this job. And it’s true. But there’s a reason. I have a little energy because I want, in my own imperfect ways, to help make our children and youth’s lives a little better. When I was a kid I struggled with depression. I struggled with depression as a teenager, and depression knocked me out of Harvard.

But no longer do I run away from my past. No longer do I run away from my struggles. And I want to encourage you to do the same. It isn’t depression for everyone. For some, it’s the grief of losing a love one. It’s divorce. It’s physical ailment. It’s kids who frustrate us, or parents we still battle. Sometimes it’s several things all at once.

Lincoln’s example tells us that yes, getting better matters, of course, but that in a way, we ought not think of struggle as something to get over. Instead we can carry a piece of hardship with us, so we are reminded that we can use our experience to help others. Our struggles, whatever they have been, can help us in our work.

In August 2013, as I lay there feeling miserable and hopeless on my dad’s couch in Houston, Lincoln’s words from that letter reached out and found me. “Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better…[but] you are sure to be happy again. I have had experience enough to know what I say.”

Lincoln didn’t run from his pain—it fueled him. And my pain fueled me to apply for this job, drive to Denver, get it, and my pain fuels me now as I work with our young people and all of you.

So friends, I urge you: don’t run from the sadness. Don’t run from the grief. Don’t run from the frustration, the despair. These, too, are a necessary part of the battle, for the time will come when you can use them, when they will fuel your work—fuel our combined work as Unitarian Universalists.

That is why I believe so strongly in the power of religious community, of having a place and space full of people who say, “You don’t have to be better right now. I am with you.” And so don’t run from your struggle, whatever it is. Pack it up and take it with you. Lincoln’s words to Fanny in the letter reminded me of that Harriet Tubman refrain, what she would tell the slaves she helped free on the Underground Railroad: “Keep going.”

We can remind each other of that.

If life is good right now, keep going.

If stress is taking over, keep going.

If raising a child or three children or five has you overwhelmed, keep going.

If it feels like love has left you, keep going.

If love has found you, keep going.

If grief has taken you, keep going.

If joy is coursing through you, keep going. I

f you are lonely, keep going.

If you wish you could ever, just once, feel lonely, keep going.

If your body is in pain, keep going. If your body has never felt this good, keep going.

If you need someone, keep going. If you are in demand, keep going.

Keep going, friends.

Keep going.

Let your struggles be your fuel.

Amen.