Posts Tagged belonging

The ‘A’ Word

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 2nd 2014.  The choice of topic was won in last year’s Auction.)

Atheism seems to have been in the news quite a bit recently.

Atheist groups have gone to court, for instance, to try to get monuments featuring secular quotes set up in places such as courthouses where the Ten Commandments are on display.  Then there was the giant digital billboard advert by American Atheists that flashed every ten minutes near Metlife Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday.  Featuring an AA staffer dressed as a priest but with football players’ stripes under his eyes and holding a football, the ad read “A ‘hail Mary’ only works in football. Enjoy the game!”

Then there was the lawsuit by the Freedom from Religion Foundation challenging the right of ministers to use a parsonage, or receive an equivalent housing allowance, without having to pay taxes.  Judge Barbara Crabbe ruled that the parsonage exemption is unconstitutional, resulting in preferential treatment for religious messages because, so she concluded, there are no atheist ministers.  As the Rev. Richard Nugent, Director of the UUA’s Office of Church Staff Finances, put it in an e-mail, “Obviously Judge Crabbe isn’t familiar with Unitarian Universalism”.

Then there are the Sunday Assemblies.  Founded in London by two British stand-up comedians, each Sunday Assembly is a time for atheists to get together for community, music and singing, and an inspiring message.  Sound familiar to, oh, I don’t know, church?  The Sunday Assembly Everywhere network uses a franchise model to start new groups in the bigger cities of the UK and the US, and in the grand old tradition of, well, I guess I can’t say religion, they’ve already experienced their first schism: a group in New York is breaking away to form what they call the “Godless Revival”.  As the Rev. Tom Schade wrote on his blog, The Lively Tradition, “Really, people should talk to Unitarian Universalists before they try to do what we have been trying to do for decades.”

And then there’s Ryan Bell, who recently announced that he would live for a year as an atheist.  He was motivated in part by a friend’s question about what difference it makes to believe in God, and was also inspired by the book A Year of Living Biblically.  He didn’t think his plan would gain so much attention, but maybe that would have been a fair assumption, given that Bell had been a Seventh-Day Adventist Minister.

In fact, starting his “year of living atheistically” on January 1st, he got as far as January 4th before being “let go” from his teaching positions at both Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary.  Bell says that both places were “super nice” and that he’d be welcomed back once he could sign their faith statements again, but as UU Doug Muder wrote on his blog, The Weekly Sift, “From the War on Christmas to the ObamaCare contraception mandate, the media gives a lot of respect to the idea that Christians might be persecuted in America, or at least that their religious freedom might be in danger.  But [if they] really want to know what religious discrimination is like, they should try being atheists.”

Finally, in this quick review of atheists in the news, there are the most recent results of a public opinion poll that organizational consulting firm Gallup has been repeating every couple of decades since 1937.

The poll question is as follows: “If your [political] party nominated a generally well-qualified person for [the office of] President who happened to be [fill-in-the-blank], would you vote for that person?”  There weren’t many categories in 1937 to go in that blank, and the results were about what you might expect.  Back in the thirties, only sixty percent of Americans would vote for a Catholic, only forty-six percent would vote for a Jew, and only thirty-three percent would vote for a woman.  These days, more than ninety percent of Americans say they would vote for Catholic, Jewish or female candidates for the office of President.

But at the bottom of the rankings today?  Only sixty-eight percent of Americans would vote for a gay or lesbian person, only fifty-eight percent would vote for a Muslim, and only fifty-four percent would vote for an atheist.  Now all such numbers have increased since Gallup first added each to its opinion poll, but it still paints a picture of widespread prejudice amongst the American public.

All in all, for the average atheist in this nation, and certainly here in the South, it’s simply advisable not to mention the ‘A’ word when it comes to talking about one’s beliefs.

There are, of course, places — even religious places — where atheists are welcome to make themselves at home.  There are, for example, Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Many years ago I heard of a memorial service for a man who had been a life-long Unitarian.  Someone who was not a UU was at that service to honor his friend, but knowing something of our history in rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, he said he knew that Unitarians believe in one god.  A woman, who was a UU, immediately chimed in: “You mean,” she called out, “believe in at most one god.”  More generally, UU congregations have long aspired to welcome everyone who would want to be part of such communities, with the only real condition being that anyone who wants to be here must be willing to help keep it welcoming for anyone else who wants to be here, too.

Now surveys of individual Unitarian Universalists have shown that about a fifth of all UUs would identify themselves as atheists.  Since atheism and other identifying terms are usually undefined on such surveys, there’s quite a bit of overlap with UUs who also identify as humanist, agnostic or Earth-centered, and perhaps even as Buddhist or pagan, too.  Still, it’s safe to say that the majority of UUs are not theistic in a traditional sense, though there’s plenty of theological diversity within and beyond that.  And it is, of course, our aspiration to be a safe place for that diversity: the radical good news of Unitarian Universalism, after all, is that we can be different people with different beliefs but still be part of one beloved community.

Amongst those who believe that such community is impossible — and perhaps even undesirable — are the so-called “New Atheists”.

Starting in 2004 with a book by Sam Harris entitled The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, and then continuing with books such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, the New Atheists emerged in response to events from coordinated efforts to teach creationism in school science classes to the hijackings of planes by terrorists on September 11th 2001.  Rather than taking a persuasive approach, however, the New Atheists launched a full frontal assault on religion in general, arguing that humanity would be better off if religion — all religion — simply went away.  This may not be anything that, in its content, is particularly new; its roots, for instance, go back to eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume and his argument that the only real miracle in religion is that people would believe in the miracles claimed by religion.  In their style, on the other hand, the New Atheists greatly ramped up the intensity and the volume of their explicitly confrontational rhetoric.

Consider, for example, this paragraph from The End of Faith by Sam Harris.  (Words emphasized in italics are his.)

With each passing year, do our religious beliefs conserve more of the data of human experience?  If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less. Progress in religion, as in other fields [such as astronomy and medicine], would have to be a matter of present inquiry, not the mere reiteration of past doctrine.  Whatever is true now should be discoverable now, and describable in terms that are not an outright affront to the rest of the world.  By this measure, the entire project of religion seems perfectly backward.  It cannot survive the changes that have come over us — culturally, technologically, and even ethically.  Otherwise, there are few reasons to believe that we will survive it.

Now there is some truth in Harris’ words when it comes to the necessity of religion being susceptible to progress.  One of the primary reasons why I am a Unitarian Universalist, for instance, is that ours is a religion that is not only open to developments in the scientific understanding of our world, but actively embraces the insights of cosmology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience.  And I know for a fact that plenty of my Christian colleagues in seminary were just as interested in cultural, technological and particularly ethical progress, even when that meant calling into question certain parts of the scriptures they held dear.

But to the New Atheists, religion is a singular structure that never allows for progress, and is instead based entirely on ideas about the world that last seemed sensible in the Iron Age.  And when that is assumed, then there are no differences between, say, Christian fundamentalists and Quakers, or between Islamic terrorists and the followers of the Dalai Lama.  In fact, as far as the New Atheists are concerned, those who claim to be religious moderates are particularly bad, because they allow religious extremists to continue to exist.

Sam Harris, for example, doesn’t acknowledge the existence of religious progressives (and doesn’t mention Unitarian Universalists), and what he claims to be a continuum of people of faith he actually describes as just a dichotomy between, on the one hand, those who, in his words, “draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity” and, on the other hand, those who, in his words, “would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy.”  In his book (figuratively and literally), if you’re not a religious extremist, then you’re a religious moderate, and you’re only a moderate because you failed to be an extremist.

Here’s what Harris has to say about, as he puts it, “the ‘myth’ of moderation in religion”.

While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence.  From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist.  […]

The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.  We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled.  All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us.  This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural [interpretation]; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God.  Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance — and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism. […]

By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.  Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question — i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us — religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness.

You know, I wish that Sam had told us how he really feels.

First, there is no such singular structure as religion, no such one-dimensional phenomenon as faith.  That’s a straw man and Harris and Dawkins only get away with implying it thanks to popular ignorance.  It doesn’t help that the mainstream media — including our local Daily Press — likes to report on marriage equality or reproductive rights as if every person claiming to be religious is necessarily opposed to them.  Such sloppy reporting needs to be held accountable for its mis-representation of religion, as do Harris and the other New Atheists.

And, as you’ve heard me say before, neither religion nor faith are merely about belief.  They are also about behavior and belonging.  It’s not surprising that the atheist Sunday Assemblies are turning out to look a lot like churches, when it’s belonging and behavior that matter more than belief (or, for that matter, non-belief).  Whether or not we are permitted (and permitted by whom, I don’t know) to criticize others’ harmful beliefs — and whether doing so would change them — is irrelevant anyway, since it’s not someone’s belief but their behavior that actually affects other people.

Even when it comes to that belief, it’s certainly not the case that faith is all about believing things that are at odds with, as Harris puts it, “the last two thousand years of human thought ([such as] democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights, an end to cultural and geographical isolation, etc.).”  Satirist Ambrose Bierce, in his “reference” book, The Devil’s Dictionary, drew on that caricature of faith by defining it as “Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.”

Now Bierce may have had in mind the Christian Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews, which defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  But even with such a biblical definition, that doesn’t rule out, for instance, faith in humanity, faith in the progress of the human endeavor, faith that we can overcome our differences and bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice and bring the Beloved Community into being.

But is it true that religious moderates, to use Harris’ terminology, are failing to challenge, and are thereby enabling, religious extremists?  Well, no, it’s not true.

Consider, for instance, the response of moderates to that form of extremism that is justifying homophobic discrimination in terms of “religious freedom”.  That’s a desperate attempt to hang onto heterosexism (as well as the sexism that’s hidden within it) by those who can see the writing on the wall, and that by itself shows that the moderates are disabling the extremists, not enabling them.  Of course, organizations like Focus on the Family are still kicking, and can mobilize their members across the country to lobby in favor of the anti-LGBTQ legislation that has been making its way through legislatures in Arizona and Kansas and a dozen other states.  But they’re not getting away with it.

There’s an organization called Faithful America, for example, which describes itself as “a fast-growing online community dedicated to reclaiming Christianity from the religious right and putting faith into action for social justice.  Our members,” they explain, “are sick of sitting by quietly while Jesus’ message of good news is hijacked to serve a hateful political agenda, so we’re organizing the faithful to take on [religious] extremists and renew the church’s prophetic role in building a more free and just society.”

And they’re not the only ones doing this.  Just a few days ago, progressive evangelical Jim Wallis wrote an article entitled “To Young Christians Speaking Out Against Anti-Gay Discrimination: Thank You”.  He was referring specifically writers like Jonathan Merritt and Kirsten Powers, who each criticized the supposedly Christian arguments being used to justify legal discrimination and questioned whether that “discrimination would also be applied to other less than ‘biblical’ marriages,” as the religious right might see them, “or if just gays and lesbians were being singled out.”

So is there an alternative to New Atheism that might allow us to consider the actual problems of religions in the real world without all the rancor and bitterness?  Well, yes, there is.

Alain de Botton calls it “Atheism 2.0”.  That was the title of his TED talk a couple of years ago, in which he talked about what atheism could learn from the world’s religions as a framework for human connection to one another, to our world, to ourselves, to time, to truth, to meaning, and so on.  That’s the behaving and belonging piece that he sees as very valuable in religion, even if, as he makes clear right from the start, he rejects the beliefs.  But for him, the basic premise of atheism — that there’s no God, singular, or gods, plural — is the “very, very beginning” of the story, not its end.  (De Botton, by the way, was one of the influences in Ryan Bell’s decision to live for a year as an atheist.)

Perhaps more well-known is Chris Stedman, the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.  In this largely autobiographical book, Stedman describes how he became a “born again” Christian as a youth — not because he believed but because he wanted to believe, and even more because he wanted the parts of religion that Alain de Botton says are the helpful parts, particularly the parts about justice.  Only not long after converting, Stedman realized he was gay.

He tried to figure it out, and, when that didn’t help, he tried to pray himself straight, but that didn’t work, either.  He considered suicide, but couldn’t go through with it.  Finally he came out, first to his mother, and then to a sympathetic minister, and he credits them with saving his life.  But within a few years, between the widespread homophobia he saw in too many churches and his own experiences of senseless violence and destruction, he became an atheist.

But Stedman didn’t give up on religion.  Today he advocates for the necessity of atheists and the religious working together to bridge their differences and find ways to understand one another.  Noting that the word “interfaith” is “imperfect, clunky and can feel exclusive to many non-religious people”, he nonetheless argues that atheists should participate in interfaith work.  He explains why this matters as follows.

Dialogue isn’t meaningless — the humanization of the ‘other’ elicited by an act of intentional encounter with difference leads to real change.  Engaging in interfaith coalition-building efforts requires a certain level of vulnerability and humility; to be understood, we must all work to understand.  To understand our privileges, our pasts, our prejudices, and what we each bring to the table in order to strengthen ourselves as a community and as a country, we must be willing to challenge the beliefs we have about those who seem different — and the result is often life-changing for all parties involved.  Everyone I’ve met who has taken part in interfaith dialogue has walked away challenged, with a renewed sense of personal agency and a feeling of shared responsibility to bring about a more pluralistic world.

So here’s my question.  Whose take on atheism is likely to help change public attitudes about the ‘A’ word, to change those poll numbers and someday allow an atheist president to be elected?  Should we follow Sam Harris, by throwing the baby out with the bathwater, vandalizing the bathroom, burning down the house, and bombing the neighborhood?  Or is it Chris Stedman, who sees many shared values and concerns amongst atheists and believers alike, and would have them work together to make the world a better place for all of us?

Then there’s the fact that if we take Harris seriously in his complaint that moderates are not doing enough to stand up to the extremists, then moderate atheists (and non-theists within Unitarian Universalism) are justified in standing up to the extremism of the New Atheists, including Harris himself!

As Sophia Lyon Fahs put it,

Some beliefs are like walled gardens.  They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.  Other beliefs are expansive, and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies.  Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.

I think it’s pretty obvious which it would be better to choose.

So may it be.

Comments (4)

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.

Comments (3)

%d bloggers like this: