Yesterday I got two things to take home to my congregation. The first was a quote: "What does it mean to understand the different parts of yourself as mutually enriching instead of mutually exclusive?"
Eboo Patel was the speaker. He's the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and the author of Acts of Faith, one of the best recent spiritual-journey books. He asked the question in terms of a young person forging an identity of diverse parts—in his case, growing up as a middle-class suburban American, as a Muslim, and as a child of immigrants from India. Acts of Faith is the story of how he came to let those identities act as modifiers for each other rather than as contestants for dominance. What kind of American is he? A Muslim-Indian one. What kind of Muslim is he? An Indo-American one.
In his IFYC work he's trying to extend that vision to society as a whole: What would it mean to see the different parts of American or global society as mutually enriching instead of mutually exclusive? How can we come to feel enriched by the presence of difference rather than threatened by it?
But what I want to take back to my congregation is not exactly either of those points: not personal identity, not global society. I'm wondering about applying Patel's insight at the congregational and denominational levels. What would it mean to understand the different parts of Unitarian Universalism (UUism)—UU-Humanism, UU-Christianity, UU-Buddhism, and so on—as mutually enriching rather than mutually exclusive? So that when you met someone at your church whose worldview seemed completely off-the-wall to you, you'd say: "I'm glad we've got one of those people in the church now. Maybe I'll finally start to understand what that's all about." And not just theologies but political views as well. "Thank the Source-of-All that we've got some Republicans or socialists or neoliberals or libertarians or whatever in my church. Maybe I'll finally start to figure why the world looks different to them."
That may not be a totally new idea in UUism, but somehow Patel's analogy to the construction of a personal identity makes it fresh.
The second thing to take home was an image, from Ware lecturer Van Jones. He says that we need to stop interpreting our political action through the lens of the David-and-Goliath story. The problem, Jones says, comes when Goliath is nowhere in sight, and you have a roomful of Davids spinning their slingshots and figuring that Goliath has to be here somewhere. "Have you been at that meeting?" he asks. That's the image. Instead, Jones wants us to try out the lens of the Noah story: What can we build that will save life?
Patel and Jones were the only speakers I saw Saturday, and together they made a theme I call Studies in Charisma. Either of them could read the phone book out loud and leave an audience wanting more of it.
Saturday night Jones gave the conference's most prestigious talk, the Ware Lecture, which has been given in the past by people like Martin Luther King and Kurt Vonnegut. I had never seen Jones before, but it's obvious that he could be anything he wants to be: politician, comedian, motivational speaker, preacher, entrepreneur—whatever. The world is fortunate that he wants to use his powers for Good. At the end of the lecture, we all stood and clapped as if we expected a rock band to come back out for an encore.
Trying to summarize his talk in a few sentences would be as hopeless a task as summarizing Fourth of July fireworks. Watch the video on the General Assembly website and try to imagine yourself.
For some people, General Assembly (GA) ended last night after the Ware Lecture. I don't blame them; home was far away and Monday morning was coming fast. Some left after the worship service this morning, which looked pretty well attended. Some will hang on all the way to the closing, which lasts until 7, and some even longer, as they take down infrastructure of our temporary city.
For me GA ends any second now. I'm going to finish this blog entry, upload it, and catch a cab for the airport.
Whenever you leave GA, you have a choice about how to look back at your experience. You can think about the things you did, or the things you didn't do. No matter who you are or what stimulants you've been taking, the second list is longer. It includes not just talks and meetings and worship services, but all sorts of things that don't appear in the program. There was that distant friend you saw—still at a distance—during the opening ceremonies. You were going to leave a note on the message board, maybe share a cup of coffee. Remember? There were all the people you bumped into on the way to something else. "We should talk," you said, and you really meant it at the time.
Didn't happen, did it?
I've got some of those on my didn't-do list. Plus, I missed the Mark Twain impersonator. I didn't make it to the candidates' forum, even though I was right there in the room for the previous session. I completely blew off the plenaries after the opening, and anything having to do with governance. I didn't walk on the beach or make it down to the hotel pool. That great drumming group from the opening did a performance later that night. I heard it was good, good enough that one of my non-dancing friends was seen dancing. Missed it.
So, GA is over for me now, or will be soon. I could be bummed all the way home, thinking about the stuff I missed.
Or I could make a different choice. I could think about the charge I got from listening to Van Jones. I could remember watching Forrest Church doing what one observer called his "victory lap"—taking one last bow and receiving one last round of applause before a year that is likely to include his death. I could recall the new insight I got into immigrant issues from the rally we had at Stranahan Park. I bought a pile of books and stayed up late finishing one of them. I heard the Sources cantata. I got to hang with the other folks who do the GA's web coverage. And I actually did manage to talk to a few of the people I bumped into.
Oh yeah, that stuff. I can remember that, if I choose to. Not bad for five days.
And I took care of myself this year, which is one reason why the didn't-do list is so long. I chose not to seize every opportunity, and that means I probably won't feel like crawling into a hole tomorrow and Tuesday. That candidates' forum—I missed it because I decided to soak up air conditioning, have a Guinness in a dark Irish pub, and not talk to anybody for an hour. Maybe that time-out is why I got so much out of Van Jones' Ware lecture in the evening.
And I'm taking care of myself now, by focusing on what happened instead of what didn't happen.
Yesterday I heard Bill Sinkford remark that Unitarian Universalists have a problem with shoulds, so I won't tell you that you should make the same choice. I'll just point out that it's working for me so far.
See you next year in Salt Lake City? I think I'll be rested up by then.
Reported by Doug Muder.
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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.
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