Archive for The “Church” Trilogy

Bring a Friend to Church!

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on November 3rd 2013.)

A few years ago I did an internship as a hospital chaplain.  With some regularity I visited hospital patients who were quick to assure me, once I’d introduced myself as a chaplain, that they were already saved.  I guess they assumed that that’s the only reason I was there: to “save” them, to “convert” them, to “evangelize” them.  Perhaps they thought that telling me they were already saved was the quickest way to get rid of me, this stranger intruding upon them when they would have much preferred to be left in peace to recover from surgery.  I didn’t feel any particular animosity from any of them, and if I were in a similar situation today, more experienced and self-confident than I was then, I might respond by asking something like “Would you be willing to tell me what you mean by ‘saved’?”  I’m pretty sure I’d quickly find that what they meant by it, or what they thought I’d assume they meant by it, wasn’t the same as what I meant by it.

Our culture, of course, has a simple idea of what it means to be saved, namely that the person who has been saved will go to heaven after they die.  That’s actually a gross oversimplification of Christian theology — quite apart from the question of how it’s supposed to apply to members of other faiths such as Judaism and Buddhism — and it comes to us in large part from televangelists and television shows about televangelists.  When you’re trying to distill two thousand years of tradition into a few sentences that’ll fit between a praise song and another plea for money, I guess that’s what happens.  (Outside the United States, by the way, in places like England where I grew up, that’s what people think religion in the United States is actually like.)

So it’s not altogether surprising that most Unitarian Universalists don’t talk about being saved.  But that’s not because it’s a foreign concept, as it is in other non-Christian religions.  Rather, it is actually part of our theology, and it’s a big part of our history, but it’s been hijacked and abused to the extent that UUs don’t talk about it for fear of being misunderstood.  But this morning I do want to talk about it, because it’s time for us to reclaim it for a healthier and more spiritually mature cause.  Since our culture does have this simplistic idea of what it means, we really ought to know what we mean by it.  So I want to talk this morning about salvation.

Our religion gets half of its name, Unitarian Universalism, from people who had a very particular idea about salvation.  They were the people who believed in universal salvation.  This was a belief that was present in the very earliest days of Christianity, a belief that people didn’t need to do particular things or satisfy particular requirements or be chosen in some particular way in order to reach heaven; no, everyone, in the end, reached heaven.  As the early Christians organized themselves, the belief in universal salvation was deemed a heresy, and the people who believed in universal salvation, who came to be known as Universalists, were cast out as heretics.  And yet Universalism persisted, cropping up here and there throughout Christendom’s extent in space and time, and does so even today, whenever people stopped to think about what it really means for God to be capable of infinite love.  As the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou put it some two hundred years ago, “Your child has fallen into the mud, and her body and garments are dirtied.  You wash her and dress her in clean robes.  The question is, do you love your child because you washed her or did you wash her because you love her?”

Universalism was not, of course, without its critics.  One story about Hosea Ballou comes from the days when he rode between towns on horse-back, preaching at a number of churches on a circuit.  One day he was riding with a Baptist minister, and they were arguing theology as they traveled.  At one point, the Baptist looked over and said, “Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away, and I’d still go to heaven.”  Ballou looked back at him and said, “My friend, if you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you.”

There were, of course, more serious objections to the idea of universal salvation, such as the question of how to reconcile it with justice.  As UU minister Mark Morrison-Reed puts it, Universalism proved to be a hard sell to African Americans, for example, because its theological promise seemed to be so at odds with the African American experience.  Where was the justice, they asked, in slave-holders being ushered into heaven right alongside those upon whom they had visited such degradation and suffering?

Though there were African Americans who had been part of even the oldest Universalist churches, and indeed the first three African Americans ever to be ordained as Universalist ministers — Joseph Jordan, Thomas E. Wise and Joseph Fletcher Jordan (no relation) — served right across the James River from us, in Norfolk and Suffolk, universal salvation was simply a theological absurdity to most African Americans.  White ministers could joke about assault and robbery, but African American Universalists faced persecution for both their faith and their race.  Thomas E. Wise, for instance, who in the 1890s was only the second African American to be a Universalist minister, was undermined by the white members of a commission appointed by the Universalist General Convention to oversee his ministry to the extent that he quit Universalism and became a Methodist, taking eight members of the Norfolk church with him.

Some might argue that it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the Universalists would grow bigger than Christianity, to grow bigger, even, than theism, in order to find a way to resolve the theological conundrum of universal salvation, to find a way that love and justice might work together rather than in opposition.  When this finally happened in the 1940s and 50s, when the Universalists recognized their call to be a truly universal religion, they found a kinship with the Unitarians, who had long since evolved to be broader than their exclusively Christian origins.  And the result of that partnership was Unitarian Universalism.

But what of universal salvation?  What of that core belief that had fueled a persistent faith for close to two thousand years?  Well, in some ways it caught on, even beyond the Universalists.  Many Christian denominations now proclaim, as part of their good news, that “God is love”, though they don’t take it quite as far to its logical conclusion as Hosea Ballou did.  But over the same time that theological Universalism was becoming a part of other denominations, the Universalists themselves were focusing more on this world rather than on any world to come, just as the Unitarians had.

This, too, was perhaps inevitable.  To be a truly universal religion means welcoming everyone, or at least everyone who is willing to be a part of such a religion and keep it welcoming for everybody else.  But there will always be differences in belief, differences in opinion, differences in personal world-views, that must somehow be accommodated.  It’s a simple fact that not everyone agrees on the idea of life after death, for example.  Amongst today’s Unitarian Universalists, some believe in a fairly traditional idea of heaven.  Some believe in reincarnation.  Some believe in a spiritual energy or a cosmic consciousness from which we came and into which we are reabsorbed.  Some believe that, when we die, our consciousness simply ceases to exist.  In spite of those differences, however, we can all agree on the idea of life before death.

Every religion seeks to make this life better in some way, though for many it’s really only a means to another end.  For both the Universalists and the Unitarians, though, it became an important end in and of itself.  Many religious traditions as well as science tell us that all life is interdependent, that we’re all in this together.  Whether viewed out of enlightened self-interest or pure altruism, this means that we are all called to build a better world for everyone.  This is salvation that isn’t just a matter of an individual promise concerning something in the future; rather this is salvation that’s a matter of a common commitment in the here and now.  Rather than salvation in another life after death, it’s salvation in this life.  So when, in our Principles, we affirm such values as “justice, equity and compassion in human relations” and “world community with peace, liberty and justice for all”, we’re not just saying, well, that’d be nice, and hoping they magically show up; rather, we’re making a commitment to work for them and realize them together.

That’s what salvation means in Unitarian Universalism.  It has nothing to do with heaven or hell or other metaphysical realms separate from our lived reality.  Rather, it has everything to do with choosing to build heaven here on Earth, with choosing to redeem ourselves — all of us — from what is, for too many people, altogether too much like hell.  It’s a theology that puts love and justice on the same side, that draws a direct line between the best love of which we human beings are capable and a world in which everyone is treated fairly and compassionately.

Now Unitarian Universalist congregations can offer a taste of that.  At their best, UU congregations are a sign of that salvation in this life, a promise that different people can come together in community, that our common humanity is a strong foundation for celebrating our differences, rather than being afraid of them.  Building within our walls even an imperfect miniature version of the heaven on Earth that we know is possible, a UU congregation can be a place, in the words of Rebecca Parker, President of the (Unitarian Universalist) Starr King School for the Ministry, where joys are celebrated, were injustices are confronted, where difficulties are overcome, and where hopes are shared.  So why would we keep that to ourselves? As Parker put it, “The progressive church holds a feast of life spread for all — it is ours to share with any who can find nourishment within our walls.

This is our good news: that such a community is possible.  That it starts on a small scale, that it flashes fitfully here and there, that there are set-backs and disappointments, that it picks itself up and tries again, well, that’s life.  It’s part of being human.  So it’s good news with a dose of realism, and that’s something that we need to share.  If it’s good news for us, then it’ll be good news for lots of other people.  And the more people who have heard that good news, the better off we’ll all be.

It’s certainly the good news of this congregation, as we’re coming to realize.  At the Board’s Retreat back in August, in fact, one of the goals that emerged, something to which the Board will bend its energies as this congregation moves forward, is to build a new narrative for this Fellowship, to tell a new story about ourselves.  Or, at least, to take the stories we already tell about ourselves and bring them together in celebration of the sort of abundant congregation we aspire to be.

You may be familiar with some of those stories, particularly if you’ve been through a membership orientation recently.  There’s the story of how this congregation was founded in the late 1950s by a handful of local residents who sought, in their words, to “foster liberal religious attitudes and living through group study, worship, service, work and recreation.”  It was chartered as a lay-led fellowship at the height of the twenty-year program that founded hundreds of new congregations around the country, many of which no longer exist, and within a year not only had its own building but hosted a conference for all of the then-Unitarian churches and fellowships in Virginia.  From the start, and in defiance of prevailing social attitudes, the membership was racially integrated, thanks to a close association with Hampton University.  Then and in the decades since, members of the Fellowship have demonstrated for civil rights, for women’s rights and for LGBT rights, and the congregation is home to the oldest pagan group in Virginia.

In 1979, the Fellowship’s building burnt down, but three items survived the fire: the original membership book, which includes the names and signatures of the charter members on its first page; the charter itself, issued to the congregation when it was founded; and the chalice, which was given by former youth Keith Dixon and which we continue to light at the start of every service.  A little over a decade ago, the Fellowship took the plunge and called its first, full-time, settled minister.  That didn’t go so well, but rather than give up on professional ministry, the congregation made a commitment to try again.  And three years ago, you decided to buy additional property, a decision made at the worst time in the Great Recession, when banks were imploding and realtors were finding other jobs.  My colleague Jeanne Pupke, minister to the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond, says that buying our office building was something we had no right to do, but we did it anyway.  What’s more, we paid off the mortgage just after Thanksgiving last year, having raised the funds to finance it ourselves rather than paying a private lender.

Board member-at-large C— came up with the perfect name for the new narrative we’ll build for the congregation, a story that celebrates our achievements and inspires us to be bold in our vision-making.  C— suggested that we build this narrative of the UUFP as “the little church that did” but it didn’t take too long for other Board members to add to that, making it “the little church that did… and can… and should… and will…”

This is our good news: that different people can come together in community, celebrating our differences on the strong foundation of our common humanity.  And this is our good news: that we are here as a place where joys are celebrated, where injustices are confronted, where difficulties are overcome, and where hopes are shared. And this is our good news: that we have hands that lift us up when we’re down and help to make the world better for everyone.  And this is our good news: that we are “the little church that did… and can… and should… and will…”  But this also needs to be part of our good news: that we have hearts that open doors to everyone who would choose to cross our threshold.  For I believe that many people are aching to hear our good news, but it can be very hard to hear it in our culture.

Today is “Bring a Friend to Church” day, our first here at the Fellowship, so far as I know, and something suggested by the Religious Education Committee.  (Our children’s RE program here, as those of you who are parents already know, is another big part of our good news, so why shouldn’t we share that with more people, too?)  Last Sunday, and in our various communications, I invited you to bring a friend or a relative to services with you today, somebody you know in your life who might be interested in being part of this community, who might benefit from being here and belonging here, if only they knew about us.

I also made the claim that there was almost certainly someone in your life like that.  How could I know?  Well, the people who study such things tell us that four out of every five people who don’t currently go to a church would do so if they were asked by a trusted friend or relative, but only two percent of church-going people actually invite anyone else to come with them in a given year.  And although the people who study such things almost always do so from a Christian perspective, I have no doubt that something equivalent holds for people who would be a part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation if only they’d heard of Unitarian Universalism.

After all, we know that the religious landscape of the United States is undergoing some huge demographic changes.  With every new generation, there are more people who do not identify with any particular religion.  On surveys asking about religious preference, they check the box marked “none”, so they are known as the “nones”.  (Obviously that’s different from the nuns who live in convents and come armed with wooden rulers.)  About a fifth of the population now says it has no religious preference, and the nones make up about a third of all young adults born after 1985.  Now this doesn’t mean that there are a whole lot more, say, atheists out there.  In terms of beliefs, the nones aren’t that much different from the church-going population, whether they believe in a personal God or see divinity in the Earth or consider themselves generically “spiritual but not religious”.  The main difference is in terms of values: they’ve given up on religion because they dislike and actively distrust what they see as authoritarian and anti-egalitarian, from attacks on women, LGBT people and the environment to meddling in education and undue influence in politics.  Well, they’ve only given up on religion because they haven’t heard about Unitarian Universalism yet!

So to those of you who brought a friend or relative here today, I say thank you.  Thank you for helping to shine the light of our liberal faith.  And to those of you who were invited here, as well as to those of you who just happen to be visiting for the first time, I say welcome.  I look forward to meeting you and getting to know you.  For this is work that we are all called to do, applying our hearts and minds and voices and hands to the building of a better world.  It isn’t easy work, but ours is no caravan of despair.  For all of us, whether we’ve been here for decades or for years or have only just crossed the threshold for the first time this morning, all of us are invited to this feast of life that is spread for all.

So may it be.

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The Church of First Resort!

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 27th 2013.)

Reading: from Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard

In her essay, “An Expedition to the Pole”, Annie Dillard alternates historical information about various attempts by explorers to reach either the North Pole or the South Pole with descriptions of her experiences of a church service she decides to attend.  In the process, she draws some conclusions about the parallels between the two enterprises: on the one hand, those who explored either the Arctic or the Antarctic were attempting to reach the navigator’s map point known as the “Pole of Relative Inaccessibility”, which in the north is that imagined point in the Arctic Ocean farthest from land in any direction and in the south is equivalently the point on the Antarctic Continent farthest from salt water in any direction; on the other hand, the goal of religion — as Dillard sees it — is to similarly attain a metaphysical Pole of Relative Inaccessibility.  Explaining herself, she writes, “It is that point of spirit farthest from every accessible point of spirit in all directions.  Like the others, it is a Pole of the Most Trouble.  It is also — I take this as given — the pole of great price.”

Going on to describe the various mishaps faced by polar expeditions, whether arising from unfortunate events or bad planning or, in the case of the 1845 expedition under Sir John Franklin, downright stupidity in caring more about their china place settings and sterling silver cutlery than, say, warm clothing and enough coal for the engines, Dillard describes some of the things that make it hard for her to keep from laughing out loud in church.  She writes, for instance, that “No one, least of all the organist, could find the opening hymn.  Then no one knew it.  Then no one could sing anyway.  There was no sermon, only announcements.  [Then the] priest proudly introduced the rascally acolyte who was going to light the two Advent candles.  As we all could plainly see, the rascally acolyte had already [lit] them.  […]  During communion, the priest handed me a wafer which proved to be stuck to five other wafers.  I waited while he tore the clump into rags of wafer, resisting the impulse to help.  Directly to my left, and all through communion, a woman was banging out the theme from The Sound of Music on a piano.”

Dillard concludes that, whether people are trying to reach a geographical pole or a spiritual one, “there seems to be only one business at hand — that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.”  As her historical accounts of the polar expeditions and her description of the church service start to blend together, she sees the church itself as one of the ships trying to make its way through the ice.  And in a passage that religious professionals and church consultants love to quote, Dillard asks, “Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful […] tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?  […]  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ […] velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

Sermon: “The Church of First Resort!”

Last Sunday I responded to the idea, apparently held by some people who don’t really know much about Unitarian Universalism, that we are the church of last resort.  I challenged this idea, explaining why it’s not true, and ended with a teaser for this sermon about how we could be the church of first resort instead.

Now this pair of sermons came out of a conversation with a member who in last year’s auction was the highest bidder for the auction item that is essentially getting to choose the topic for one of my services.  This year’s auction is coming up very soon, of course, so you could be the next person to give me a sermon theme, and who knows, maybe you’ll get two services for the price of one!

While my sermon last Sunday was about the vision that other people have of us, today I want to talk about the vision we have of ourselves particularly in terms of how it is either similar to or different from our vision for ourselves.  I realize I’m using the word “vision” here in a couple of different ways, so let me explain.

First, there’s our vision of ourselves, in the sense of how we see ourselves right now.  Like our self-images as individuals, sometimes the ways in which we see ourselves are influenced by more than just reality, so one of the responsibilities of a parish minister is to hold up a mirror to congregational life so that the congregation can see itself — warts and all, as it were.  A vision of ourselves that’s a little bit more positive than reality isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s a form of self-confidence, after all.  But it is a sign of spiritual maturity — both for individuals as well as for congregations — to want to face up to shortcomings and areas for improvement rather than to gloss over them.

Second, there’s our vision for ourselves, in the sense of how we want to see ourselves in the future.  The Fellowship’s vision in that sense is articulated in our by-laws, and lent its words to my invocation this morning: “We offer a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.”  As much as that’s written in the present tense, as a vision statement it describes an ideal that serves to guide us into the future, that calls us to always be better in the future.  So another responsibility of a parish minister is to keep reminding a congregation of its vision for its own future.

Now I want to talk about our vision of and for ourselves, particularly in terms of how that relates to becoming the church of first resort, but let me begin by setting up something that I’ll come back to later on.

In January, we held a day-long social justice workshop where we considered what we’re doing as a congregation to create a more just and caring world.  Our Social Justice Chair led an exercise that had us think about our geographical location, starting with our street and our immediate neighborhood, then moving to the larger neighborhood of Denbigh, then the city of Newport News, then Hampton Roads, then Virginia, then the southeast, then the United States, then the whole planet Earth.  And at each level, we brainstormed the characteristics of that level: what was good, what was bad, what we liked, what was a problem.

What I found fascinating about this exercise was that we tended to have more good things to say about the smaller scales of our geographical location — our neighborhood, our town — while at the larger scales — from the state up to the whole planet — we had increasingly bad things to say.  Apparently we really like where we are, and we think that things are generally good right here, but we don’t like the bigger picture of where we are and we can see a lot more problems there.  But if we think that things are generally good here, and if, in all likelihood, most people in most other places think that things are generally good where they are, too, then how come when all those good places are put together, they result in a larger place that’s so much worse?  Keep that in the back of your mind for a few minutes, because I’ll come back to it.

Earlier this month, there was some discussion on Facebook of a blog post written by a former Unitarian Universalist.  It was actually written a couple of years ago and was titled “A ‘Dear John’ Letter to Unitarian Universalism”.  It’s evidently done the rounds amongst many UUs during those two years, because the letter itself is followed by one hundred and ten comments, indicating that the author touched quite a number of nerves.

Now the “about” page of the blog doesn’t give a name for the author herself, nor does it name her former congregation, but a number of the comments call her as Cindy, so that’s what I’ll call her, too.

The first part of Cindy’s “Dear John” letter expresses some general dissatisfaction with Unitarian Universalism, even though she makes clear that there are plenty of things she loves about our faith, too.  She also makes it pretty clear up front in the letter that she’s a liberal Christian, and though that does feed into her dissatisfaction, I don’t take it to play into her decision to leave our faith that much.

As well as general dissatisfaction, though, Cindy does give some tangible reasons for leaving Unitarian Universalism, and these are definitely worthy of our consideration.

First she calls to the stand an “ambivalence about membership”.  She’s certainly not the first person to note that Unitarian Universalist congregations typically expect very little of their members, whether in material or spiritual terms, and yet it’s well known that it’s actually the churches that ask a lot of their members that tend to be large and thriving.  Cindy writes that as much as she dislikes the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations”, it did describe what she experienced.  She was appalled that, in her old congregation, it was actually okay that people would hardly ever show up on Sundays, and never participate in any other ways, but still come to congregational meetings to hog the floor and provoke arguments.

Now in our membership orientation program, we do actually focus on what it means to be a member here at the Fellowship.  Hearing myself say that, it seems weird that a membership orientation would not highlight what it means to be a member, but the weirder thing is that many such orientations don’t.  We also talk about the rights and responsibilities of being a member here, and part of the information about that says: “We expect our members to participate in [any of] a number of ways: by attending Sunday services; by working on their own spiritual development; by putting their faith into action; by taking part in our various programs and activities; by pledging financial support; by engaging with our democratic process; and by connecting to the wider world of Unitarian Universalism.”  Yes, there is a healthy, reasonable alternative to the dysfunction of ultra-low expectations that Cindy witnessed that does not make us into the sort of ultra-strict church that demands to see people’s tax returns.  There’s nothing wrong with articulating what it means to actually be a member, and I’m glad that we do that, though there’s always more that we could do to help people get the most out of being here as members.

Next in her “Dear John” letter, Cindy tackles what she names “accepticemia”, which is a systemic “reluctance to label toxic behaviors and assign them consequences”.  That’s part of the dysfunction that allows congregational meetings to turn into shouting matches, something that not too many years ago used to happen here, so I’m told.  Cindy attributes this to a perversion of the first of the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism: “We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  I’m not sure that that’s the only, or even the main reason, and in any case part of the First Principle is respecting people enough to hold them accountable for their actions, not letting them get away with toxic and disruptive behaviors.  As Cindy points out, there is a very real difference between welcoming all people, which is definitely something our faith calls us to do, and welcoming all behaviors, which is at best unhealthy and at worst dangerous.

From my perspective, “accepticemia”, to use Cindy’s new word for this syndrome, was a result of Unitarian Universalism forgetting that we are a faith based on covenant, or the promises we make one another about how we’ll behave when we’re together.  We always knew — and were proud of the fact — that we weren’t a faith based on creed, or an officially sanctioned list of beliefs, but we forgot that we were supposed to be based on covenant, with agreed upon standards of behavior, and as a result we were effectively a faith based on, well, nothing.  When I first joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation a little over twelve years ago, I don’t remember hearing anything about covenant.  In the last decade, thankfully, we’ve been rediscovering our heritage and remembering who we are called to be.

I’m guessing that Cindy’s old congregation didn’t know much about how to be in covenant.  She comments on how accepticemia manifested at its worst during Joys and Concerns, when people aired their personal grudges or abused it to vent on political issues.  Cindy saw that part of the service go toxic more than once, and while she says she can forgive the people who probably didn’t even realize the damage they were doing, she cannot forgive the lay leaders who refused to set up healthy boundaries between what is appropriate in worship and what is not.

Now I know that here we have a range of opinions over the value of doing Joys and Concerns, but I have to say that we do Joys and Concerns well here.  Sometimes somebody talks for too long, or the whole segment runs long simply because of the number of people who want to light a candle and speak, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in over three years’ worth of my services that someone has made even a mildly inappropriate comment.

And that brings us to Cindy’s criticism of what she calls “negligent worship”.  Here she’s talking about Sunday mornings that offer university lectures and passion-less music, but we could just as easily be talking about the sort of poor planning and lousy execution that made it hard for Annie Dillard to keep from laughing out loud in church.  Other than her own unmet need for a meaningful worship experience, Cindy found herself feeling guilty when someone came to services and shared some major loss in their life — “a child, a spouse, a job or their hope” — but her old congregation had nothing to offer them in consolation.

Now there’s some truth to Dillard’s observation that, whether we’re talking about a physical voyage or a spiritual one, what we are often challenged to do is figure out “workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.”  Even with services designed with theological consideration for spiritual meaning and impact, well, things can still go wrong.

I’ve done services where it turned out nobody could sing one of the hymns.  When I was a teenager and was asked to read a pre-written prayer, I accidentally mixed up the order of some of the words, which I think made it an invocation of hell rather than heaven.  And it’s not unusual here for our own chalice to stubbornly refuse to light.  But those things don’t make or break what we do as a religious experience rather than a secular exercise, though we always recognize that there’s room for improvement.

You might be interested to know that the Sunday Services Committee devotes part of each monthly meeting to a book we’re all reading, namely Worship That Works: Theory and Practice for Unitarian Universalists.  I’ve noticed that it’s already made a difference in how we do services here.  And I am also asking the committee to evaluate at least one of my services each month, given that I fully recognize that I can always do better at this, too, even if becoming better isn’t usually easy or pain-free.

Let’s return to the exercise we did at January’s Social Justice Workshop where we found that we had much more positive things to say about where we are on the local level as contrasted with increasingly negative things to say about the state and national and global levels.  Perhaps you’ve been coming to your own conclusions about it over the last few minutes, but what jumped out for me was the ease with which we identified the Big problems like attacks on women’s reproductive rights, the disappearing social safety net and global climate change.  Those are “Big with a capital B” problems not just because of their scope and wide-ranging impact, but because they exist at a larger scale.

And yet we also know, even if it’s apparently harder for us to name them, that there are “big with a lower-case b” problems, too.  You don’t have to spend long reading the Daily Press or watching the local news to know that Newport News is not a perfect city, and frankly we stand to have a much greater impact on local issues than we do on any national or global issue.  It’s easier to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, and if you don’t think there’s any way that our Fellowship could ever be a big fish, just remember that of all the congregations that support the Living Interfaith Network (or LINK) of Hampton Roads, the UUFP is actually LINK’s biggest supporter.

Then there are the “big with a lower-case b” reasons for which people often start coming to church services, their need for help in dealing with feelings like anger, or with personal dilemmas over relationships or conflict or sexuality, or with life passages including death and loss, or with spiritual growth and that yearning for a metaphysical “Pole of Relative Inaccessibility” that we have only been able to imagine is actually there.  Perhaps the biggest of the “big with a lower-case b” reasons that people have for seeking out a church is the simple need for community, to feel connected to other people.  The paradigm of church life used to be that if you believed a certain set of things and you behaved in certain ways, then you could belong to the church that required you to believe and behave as such.  These days people are recognizing that it’s belonging that needs to come first, and it’s certainly the first thing that matters when it comes to Unitarian Universalist congregations.

It’s common to hear at our membership orientations that somebody wants to join the Fellowship as a member because they feel that they belong here.  That’s what we want to hear, of course.  And many of the programs and activities in which we expect our members to take part, from Fellowship Circles and the Softball League to Second Sunday Lunch and Hospitality Teams, are really about celebrating and deepening that sense of belonging.  And they’re not exclusively for members, either, of course.

At the same time, we’re trying to be better about really living our vision of ourselves as an inclusive community, too.  That’s not about giving in to accepticemia, of course!  Rather, in regards to the “safe place” part of becoming “a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious [exploration] and service to the wider community”, the Board is developing an Allergy Policy to help us be more aware of those in this community who have what are in some cases life-threatening sensitivities.  To be clear, I’m not talking about merely disliking somebody’s perfume or aftershave, or having a personal preference against sliced onions in a salad.  I have a visceral loathing, for instance, of the overpoweringly “cinnamon” scented things that clog up the supermarkets at this time of year, but that’s not an allergy.  No, I’m talking about the person — adult or child — who needs to carry an epi-pen with them in case they accidentally ingest peanut and must then hope that, on the off-chance that they do, somebody else will have the gumption to slam that epi-pen into their thigh.  I’m talking about the person who’ll end up in hospital if they’re exposed to even the smallest amounts of an allergen, so we have a responsibility to ensure that how we do things, from serving food to maintaining our buildings, helps this to be a safe place for people with allergies, just as we want it to be for everyone.

And that, really, is what being the church of first resort is all about.  Obviously we have a responsibility to ensure that we don’t suffer from the sort of gross negligence of our faith that former UU Cindy called out in her “Dear John” letter, but that’s not enough.  We also have to be who we say we actually are, to be better at being who we say we actually want to be.  So, affirming our commitment to care for one another, we have a Caring Committee that regularly helps out individuals and families following child-birth or surgery or illness.  And we’re relaunching our Stewardship Committee as a reaffirmation of our year-‘round commitment to hold all of our members in community.  And I’m excited to report that we’re also starting a new program of home visits to help those members who have a hard time getting here for services or other programs.  It’s all about connection and belonging, and it’s doing that well that’ll make us the church of first resort.

We’re not there yet, but there are some signs that we’re getting there.  I already mentioned that, as a congregation, we’re LINK’s biggest supporter. That’s obviously something in which we should take great pride.  What you might not know is that we’re also known, by at least one local therapist, as a warm, welcoming community that can help people in their personal search for emotional and spiritual healing and wholeness.  And that’s the other part about being the church of first resort: it’s not just about actually being who we already say we are and should be, it’s also about being known for it.

So next Sunday, I invite you to share your love of this Fellowship by bringing a friend or a relative to services with you.  This is, I should emphasize, an invitation: you won’t be turned away at the door if you don’t have someone new with you, and I certainly don’t want to make anybody anxious about this.  But if there’s somebody you know in your life who might be interested in being part of this community, who might benefit from being here and belonging here — and trust me, there almost certainly is — then I invite you to ask them to come to services with you next Sunday, November 3rd.

My friends, let’s let our light shine.  Let’s live into our own vision for ourselves, let’s welcome all those who still haven’t found what they’re looking for, let’s be that safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth, let’s tend our own souls by caring for one another, let’s embrace that present moment that is such a gift to us, let’s help each other with all those “big with a lower-case b” challenges that life throws at us, and let’s share our good news with all those people who need us in their lives.  Let’s be the church of first resort.

So may it be.

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The Church of Last Resort?

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 20th 2013.)

Back in the Spring I happened to notice that a newspaper article had been pinned to one of our bulletin boards.  Curious to see what it was, and knowing that I hadn’t pinned it there myself, I took a closer look.

The article was an opinion piece by journalist Lisa Miller, a prize-winning religion columnist for the Washington Post.  She began this particular newspaper article with the following paragraph.

The joke about Unitarians is that they’re where you go when you don’t know where to go.  Theirs is the religion of last resort for the intermarried, the ambivalent, the folks who want a faith community without too many rules.  It is perhaps no surprise that the Unitarian Universalist Association is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the country, ballooning fifteen percent over the past decade, when other established churches were shrinking.  Politically progressive to its core, it draws from the pool of people who might otherwise be “nones” — unaffiliated with any church at all.

Well, I experienced a number of emotions in response to reading just that first paragraph.  First, I felt a certain exasperated weariness.  After all, the joke about people who tell jokes about “Unitarians” is that they can’t get our name right.  I don’t know if it’s ignorance or laziness.  For the last fifty two years, we’ve been Unitarian Universalists, and the Universalist side of our heritage is as essential as the Unitarian side.

(And, as one person who commented on the Washington Post’s website put it, starting an article about another’s religion by joking about that religion is probably not wise unless the writer is already committed to the even greater folly of writing a series of articles beginning “The joke about Baptists …”, “The joke about Catholics …”, “The joke about Jews …”, “The joke about Muslims …” and so on.  The commenter concluded, “I will get a bag of popcorn to watch the responses you get to those articles.”)

The next emotion I experienced was, well, pride.  Let’s be honest.  It’s good that we’re here for people who can’t find a religious home elsewhere, and if we are growing because we embrace “the intermarried, the ambivalent”, the “people who might otherwise be ‘nones’”, then, well, bully for us.  There’s certainly a common idea that many mixed faith parents find their ways to Unitarian Universalist congregations for the sake of appropriately inclusive and respectful Religious Education for their children, and it’s no surprise that Beacon Press has published books for interfaith families and that UU World has run articles on the subject.  There’s also the fact that, though more and more people are coming to us with no prior church-going experience, there are still plenty of people who were treated badly by other religions and need Unitarian Universalism as a place where they can, after nursing their wounds for a while, find healing and spiritual wholeness.

But then, looking back over the article, I experienced annoyance.  I don’t want Unitarian Universalism to be, in Ms. Miller’s words, “the religion of last resort”.  I don’t want our Fellowship to be what’s left after somebody has checked out all the other churches that come before us in the alphabet.  I don’t want us to be the church of last resort.

And apparently Ms. Miller isn’t the only one who sees us that way.

In early August, the Southern Baptist Convention filed a brief with the Supreme Court concerning a lower court’s ruling that government meetings may not be opened with a religious act of prayer.  “Th[is] case is about a government seeking to establish a state-ordered civil religion that crowds out the most basic rights of freedom of speech,” the brief stated.  “That is not what our ancestors, and their allies among the American Founders, meant by religious liberty.  We shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Baptist church, [we] agree, but we shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Unitarian church either, and that’s what some are attempting.”

So, just like Ms. Miller, the people who wrote the brief apparently know something about us, but not enough to get our name right.  Maybe their only source of information is “A Prairie Home Companion”.

In any case, the Southern Baptist Convention does seem to be making explicit something that Ms. Miller only implies: that if you take “religion” and remove from it all of the actual religious “stuff”, then what’s left is Unitarian Universalism.

Now by “religion”, let’s be honest, what’s actually meant here is “Christianity”.  Nobody crying “freedom of speech” and “religious liberty” in this case is for one moment thinking about the possibility that government meetings might be opened by a Hindu swami leading a prayer to Vishnu or by a Pagan priestess calling on the spirits of the four directions.  In the Town of Greece, New York, on the other hand, a Christian minister has given just about every opening prayer and that’s why the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the town had violated the First Amendment.

(By the way, of the fifty-two chaplains who have served the United States House of Representatives, guess how many have been Christian?  Methodists and Presbyterians count for more than half of them, and though there are actually two Unitarians and one Universalist amongst that number, they served back when both traditions were still pretty much Christian.  Oh, and there have never been any female chaplains, though some, as well as male clergy of other faiths, have been guests.  You might be interested to know that September 2000 marked the first time a guest chaplain was Hindu.  Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala opened the House session with a prayer that, in spite of invoking a generic “God” rather than, say, Shiva, resulted in protests from conservative Christians.  I don’t know if there’s ever been a guest chaplain who was Pagan, but I really, really doubt it.)

Closer to home, the Newport News City Council opens its meetings with an invocation by a local minister, though they’ve had to change how that’s done, perhaps as a result of the ruling against the Town of Greece, New York.  I’ve delivered that invocation twice: once before anything was changed, when I spoke facing the audience, and once after the change, when I spoke facing the members of the city council.  Either way, everybody in the room could hear me, thanks to the microphone, and I was even on television!

I guess the intention of the change in having the minister speak facing the council is that the invocation is then for them, rather than being for everybody.  That seems pretty flimsy to me, though.  Both of my invocations were much as you’d hear for a chalice lighting in this Sanctuary.  If I was actually praying to anything, it was to “the spirit of life and love”, but otherwise I was praying for the members of the city council, that they might speak the truth in love and listen to more than others’ words, and that their work on behalf of our town might be their prayer.

I suspect that that made my invocations rather different from those of most of my clergy colleagues.  On the one hand, the letter from the city council said that “The invocation must be generic and applicable to citizens of all faiths. Invoking Christ, Mohammad, etc., has been deemed by Courts to be improper in this setting.”  On the other hand, an attached document from The Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities included a recommendation that “Those who lead such prayers should make them non-denominational and respectful of the nearly universal belief in God, while avoiding language or images that are connected to any one tradition or practice of a particular faith or religion.”  I think my reaction when I first read that was something along the lines of “Huh?”  Let me read it again so that you can appreciate the glorious incoherence of it: “Those who lead such prayers should make them non-denominational and respectful of the nearly universal belief in God, while avoiding language or images that are connected to any one tradition or practice of a particular faith or religion.”

For starters, to talk about denominations is to pretty much frame this in terms of Protestant Christianity from the get-go.  To talk about Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy as denominations is actually nonsense, because the very idea of denominations is at odds with Catholic and Orthodox theology.  I guess some might consider, say, the different schools of Buddhism to be like denominations, if they insisted, but what would “non-denominational” Buddhism have to say about “the nearly universal belief in God”?  Theravada Buddhism is actually atheist while Tibetan Buddhism has thousands of deities, and with many of those gods depicted as wrathful and fearsome, I suspect the people at the The Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities would wet themselves if they actually knew.  (Or maybe they do know, but wrote in thoroughly sloppy language.)

So in the sense that a Unitarian Universalist invocation should be at least somewhat meaningful to everyone from theists to humanists, and from atheists to pagans, then yes, the perfect “non-denominational” prayer to open a government meeting would indeed be Unitarian Universalist.  But the Southern Baptist Convention is wrong in claiming that that’s only because what we’re actually doing is starting with something Christian and then removing all of the Christianity from it.

Now if you know anything about Unitarian Universalist history, you might at this point object by saying that that’s indeed what happened.  After all, just a few minutes ago I made reference to three ministers from our traditions, the Unitarians Jared Sparks and William Henry Channing and the Universalist Henry Couden, each of whom served as Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives sufficiently far back in the past that both Unitarianism and Universalism were, at those respective times, both still pretty much Christian.  So didn’t both traditions evolve by shedding their Christianity?

Well, I guess you could view it that way.  To my mind, though, that’s definitely a “glass half empty” way of looking at it, and rather misses the point.  And to try to look at it in a “glass half full” way is to still be stuck in the mindset that’s something’s missing.

I prefer to look at what happened in terms of a bigger glass, with more in it.  Yes, both Unitarianism and Universalism emerged from Christianity.  They were both viable schools of belief in that chaotic, frothy mixture we simplistically name “the early church”, present right from the start two thousand years ago, and a lot of politics took place before both the Unitarians — who believed in the full humanity of Jesus — and the Universalists — who believed that everybody would ultimately go to heaven — found themselves cast out as heretics.  And yet pockets of both Unitarianism and Universalism persisted in springing up again and again through the centuries.

In the United States, both faiths thrived thanks to the Constitutional guarantee that the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.  And both faiths continued to be Christian well into the nineteenth century, differing only from “official” Christianity in their specific theological points.  It wasn’t even until the 1820s that the Unitarians started calling themselves by that name, setting themselves apart from Christians who believed in the Jesus of the Trinity, but apparently that started a ball rolling that nobody saw coming.

First, there was the Transcendentalist Movement, which featured many Unitarians.  That made the glass bigger by refusing to accept the Bible as the only sacred text.  The scriptures of Eastern traditions became accessible in English translations and Nature itself became a source of religious inspiration.  The Transcendentalist Movement eventually disappeared, but the Transcendentalists themselves were absorbed back into Unitarianism.

Something similar happened a century later, when Humanism appeared on the scene.  That made the glass bigger again by refusing to accept theism as the only valid theology, and it opened the way to add pantheism and atheism into that bigger glass.  Humanism, too, at least in that original form, also disappeared, but the Humanists were, like the Transcendentalists before them, absorbed back into Unitarianism.

And along the way, social movements from the abolition of slavery to women’s suffrage made the glass bigger too, not just for the Unitarians but for the Universalists as well.

The Universalists were exclusively Christian well into the twentieth century, but while the Unitarians had grown bigger and more inclusive in an organic fashion, or at least by repeated happy accidents, the Universalists actually made a conscious decision to make their glass bigger and more full.  They chose to aspire to be a truly Universal religion, and in this realized they had natural partners with the Unitarians.  Both faiths agreed that together they would make the glass even bigger and even more full, and so in 1961 Unitarian Universalism was born.

In other words, Unitarian Universalism is far from the result of starting with Christianity and then removing everything Christian.  Rather, it’s what you get when you make, to switch metaphors, a big enough tent for people of different religious beliefs and different spiritual practices to gather under the same roof.  To talk of what’s left is to miss the point entirely.  To talk of what’s left is to somehow think that the process of growing that tent and becoming more open and inclusive to more people has actually diminished us, when in fact it’s quite the opposite.

Now don’t be misled by the regrettably persistent strain of anti-Christian sentiment that occasionally pops up amongst Unitarian Universalists.  As I mentioned earlier, some people find themselves here because they’re seeking healing from the hurts inflicted upon them in other churches.  Not that I want to justify bad behavior, but a certain amount of appropriate venting can be cathartic, so long as it eventually leads to wholeness.  And not to make excuses but there’s also the inevitable stress of being a member of a minority religion within a culture that clearly doesn’t understand us.

But then, we’ve contributed to some of that problem ourselves, too.

Unitarian Universalists went through a long phase of describing ourselves, as a faith, in terms of what we are not, what we don’t believe, what we don’t do, and so on, leading to ridiculous ideas that we’re the religion where you can believe whatever you want or that we’re the faith community with no rules.  No wonder we’re seen as the church of last resort!

It’s only within the last decade or so that we’ve started talking about Unitarian Universalism in terms of what we are, which is an authentically religious embodiment of the ideals of the original motto of the United States: “E pluribus unum”, or “Out of many, one”.  Let me say that again, in case you ever want to use it as an “elevator speech”:  Unitarian Universalism is an authentically religious embodiment of the ideals of the real motto of the United States: “E pluribus unum”.

So I don’t want us to be the church of last resort.  And, in fact, we’re not.  It’s only the ignorance and laziness of others that lets them label us that way, aided and abetted by our historical inability to clearly identify ourselves as a religion.  But fixing those things doesn’t mean we automatically become the church of first resort.

But we could be.  We could be the church of first resort.

Unitarian Universalism could be at the top of the list of religions where people who have not yet joined us know they can find uplifting worship and music, where they know they can participate in outstanding religious exploration for all ages, where they know they can engage in faithful witness for progressive values, where they know they can support tireless advocacy for justice, and where, above all, they know they can be supported by a loving community where we tend our own souls by caring for one another.  Unitarian Universalism can be the church of first resort … but that’s my topic for next Sunday.

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