Posts Tagged comfort

Thank you, Michael Piazza, for restoring my faith in church.

Dear Michael Piazza,*

Thank you for restoring my faith in church.

Oh, I don’t mean “a church”.  I have great confidence in the congregation I serve, after all, and I know there are other good faith communities out there, too.  And I don’t mean “the church”, in the larger sense of organized religion.  Rather, I mean “church”, as short-hand for “the institution of congregational life”.

You restored my faith in the institution of congregational life when I attended your workshop at the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s “Institute” at the beginning of February.  Your title was “Preaching and Worship for the Future Church and the Future of the Church”, and though in the course of our three days together you certainly talked about good preaching and good worship, what came through most clearly was your passion for doing church well.  It was clear that you so dearly want to do congregational life well — and that you sincerely wanted every UU minister in that lecture hall to do like-wise, too — because you believe that congregational life really, really matters.  It was your passion and your heartfelt belief that restored my faith in church.

For anyone following religion news these days, it’s not hard to see and hear a lot of doom and gloom about “the future church and the future of the church”.  Oh, the demographic shifts are real enough, combining the generation-spanning decline in trust of institutions generally with younger generations’ rejection of religion that is judgmental, exclusionary and irrelevant.  And it would certainly be foolish to do church as if credit cards and social media didn’t exist, or with notions of “sacred music” limited to what was written by a few long-dead white men.  But the doom and gloom seem to go beyond noticing that congregations can’t keep pretending it’s the 1950s, to declaring that the congregation as an institution not only has no future but is already on its death-bed.

I can handle the seemingly endless stream of articles with titles such as “Nine Reasons Why People Aren’t Coming To Your Church” or “Seven Ways You’re Repelling Newcomers”; for all that their titles are sensationalistic, the articles themselves do make some valid points.  But I have been disheartened by the apparently exclusive emphasis on other forms of religious group-making, including the earnest promotion of ministry as a vocation that in the future will require either independent wealth or a submission to poverty.  The cynic in me says that we’ve given up trying to find the formula that will magically make congregations perfect, only we did so not by accepting that there are no such things as “magic” or “perfection”, but instead by abandoning the congregation as a viable way of doing religion.

The fact is that it takes hard work for people to actually be in community, particularly religious community.  And when a congregation is doing well, by which I mean when it’s doing community well, then more people will want to be a part of it, which means it will grow, which means it will change, and then it will take more hard work to respond to that change in healthy ways so that the congregation continues to do well as it grows.

Now I’ve spent fifteen years figuring out that simple fact, thanks to my experiences first as a lay church member, then as a seminarian, and now as a minister serving a congregation that really values community and hospitality.  But in the last couple of years, following in particular the publicity around “the rise of the nones”, it increasingly felt like I was being told that I was on a fool’s errand.  I so want to see the congregation I serve thrive and grow and fulfill its considerable potential, but again and again I’ve seen the consultants and the experts gleefully preparing a casket for the idea of church.  (Last year, you may remember, the Alban Institute even shut its doors!)

That’s why I’m thanking you, Michael.  You made it clear to me that what I and my colleagues in parish ministry are doing really does matter.  You made it clear that church really does matter, not because any of us might think we have the right theology or the right music or the right programs, but because congregational life matters.  Church is where we listen to one another and support one another and help one another, where we can respond to the deepest of human needs to know each other and to be known.  The forms and trappings of church may change with the times — and, indeed, they must change — but the core reason for being of the institution of congregational life continues, because our human need for comforting, encouraging, transforming community continues.  Thank you for showing me that I’m not the only one who still believes that.  Thank you for restoring my faith in church.

Yours, in faith and service,

Andrew.

~)<

* Piazza started as a Methodist preacher and then moved to the Metropolitan Community Church when he came out.  In the 1980s, he began serving an MCC congregation in Dallas that was dying.  Literally dying.  It was the height of the AIDS crisis, there was little understanding of what AIDS was or how to treat it, and while gay men were dying across the country, the White House press corps was laughing about it.  Piazza turned that church around, and, as the Cathedral of Hope, it’s now the largest LGBTQ-friendly congregation in the world.  And it’s in Dallas, Texas.

Four years ago, Piazza began serving a United Church of Christ congregation in Atlanta.  It was dying, too, given the age of its members. But in those four years, that congregation has quadrupled in size, and it’s now racially diverse, too.

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High Places

I love mountains.  I guess I didn’t know that before living in Colorado and New Mexico for four years, not that it’s something I’d have suspected growing up in a seafaring nation that prides itself on being an island!  Most mornings of those four years I was greeted soon after leaving our house with a breath-taking view of the Rocky Mountains, occupying the horizon west of Denver and stretching as far north and south as the eye could see.  (The Rockies dominate local geography to the extent that directions are often given relative to them — “go toward the mountains” or “head away from the mountains” instead of “turn left” or “go right” — which is fine unless it’s a rare cloudy day, or it’s night-time!)

During my internship in Albuquerque, we lived in the foothills of the Sandias.  At a mere two-miles high rather than the Rockies’ almost three, the “watermelon” mountains may be less majestic than their snow-capped cousins to the north, but I found them more approachable — not just physically but emotionally: I found their proximity and solidity a source of comfort, even if it meant that our mobile ‘phones rarely had signal!  Every morning, stepping out onto the driveway, I would look up, and the Sandias were there, ready to greet me.  I found myself developing the spiritual practice of reciting the version of Psalm 121 improvised by Christine Robinson, Albuquerque’s minister and my mentor:

I lift my eyes to the hills.  Whence will my help come?
My help comes from the creativity of the cosmos
which is making the Heavens and the Earth.
It comes also from the core of myself.  It is my guide and hope.
On this path I am safe whatever befalls me.

Last month I enjoyed getting to know two areas of North Carolina’s High Country: the Mountain, the Unitarian Universalist retreat center near the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then Watauga County, including the towns of Blowing Rock and Boone and the aptly named Grandfather Mountain.  For all that I lived at an altitude of a mile or more for four years, it was a very different experience to stand on the “Mile High Swinging Bridge” than spans the ravine between two of Grandfather’s peaks, looking out — and hundreds of feet down — to the surrounding countryside!

Setting my vertigo aside, though, there’s nothing like being in such a high place to get an immediate idea of where I am; with the land laid out beneath me, I can see where I’ve been and where I’ve yet to go.  It’s not surprising, perhaps, that the ancients located their gods on mountains, from which they could see what was going on in the human world, a gods’-eyes view that necessarily eluded mere mortals.  After all, with imperfect memories, limited awareness of what’s happening around us, and next-to-no ability to anticipate the future, it’s difficult for us to climb out of the valleys and canyons of our human lives to reach a higher place of mind and time, much less a mountain top that affords us a panoramic view of history and destiny.

And yet we are blessed with creativity and imagination, with abilities to be confident in ourselves and to trust our companions on this spiritual journey that we call life.  We may not know exactly where we come from, but in sharing stories we can get an idea of where we’ve been.  We may not be completely clear on what we are, but in building community we can appreciate who is with us.  And we may have little idea of where we’re going, but in dreaming together we can explore what might be.  Come, let us lift our eyes to the hills!  Let us be one another’s guide on this path, offering hope with a smile and an out-stretched hand.

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