Thursday, September 06, 2007

Reflections on the Beginning of Another Church Year

It seems like an odd thing to do, when you stop and think about it.

Why give up a weekend morning, make yourself and your family presentable, and go to church? Why join its committees and work on its projects? Don't you have more urgent things to do with your time? Why contribute money that you surely could apply to some other purpose, money that you could put aside towards (say) a nice vacation or use to pay down that worrisome balance on your credit card?

Why church?

The traditional churches have a simple answer: Eternity. It seems like a good deal they offer: a little bit of trouble and expense now in exchange for eternal bliss. Or else take your chances on damnation. What's it going to be? You have fire insurance, don't you? Why not take out a little hellfire insurance?

But our church can't make that pitch. We've trained you (if you needed it) not to be so gullible, not to jump at every threat or promise that someone makes in an authoritative tone, not to jerk like a puppet at every thou-shalt or thou-shalt-not you read in some allegedly ancient text. Why shalt thou? Why shalt thou not? Who is this voice that calls itself God? Is there a man behind that curtain? Is there an all-too-human all-too-earthly church?

Why should we (who know better) make a church? Even a "free" church, as we call it? Would animals, taken back to the plains of Africa and released, build themselves a zoo? Even a "free" zoo, with cages that didn't lock? Would they surround themselves with wire and stay on moated islands just for old times' sake?


So why a church?

You don't need another demand on your attention. Forget eternal life, day-to-day life is already more than enough to think about. Job, health, home, family -- couldn't you use a second 24 hours every day just to keep up with them? Or to get away from them and finally have some time for yourself? Maybe once there were homemakers who needed church as an excuse to get out of the house for a while. Maybe there were workers who were grateful to be told to sit down and do nothing on a Sunday morning.

But those days are over, aren't they?

Or maybe they aren't. You don't work 16 hours a day in the mines or the mills. You don't beat rugs with a stick or haul water from the well or bake your family's bread from scratch (unless you want to). But there's always something, isn't there? Something that a better version of yourself would be doing. Stuff to put in order. Plans to make, letters to write, things that someone is going to expect you to know and understand and deal with. Soon. Maybe already.

Sometimes life is like one of those dreams where you're running from something and don't believe that you're going to get away. You think you need to run faster, but what you really need is to wake up.

Wake up.

Eternity? You could use an excuse to step back and think about next month. Or a year from now. Or five. Where is it all going, this life you've made? Sometimes that question hits you in spite of the clothes in the hamper and the meeting tomorrow morning and the kids who are waiting for someone to pick them up. Where is it all going?

Maybe it hits you on a round-numbered birthday. Or out of the blue, when you spot a white hair or hear the news about that friend you haven't seen since almost forever.

Or maybe it comes after one of those moments when time seems to stop. The last sliver of the red sun peeks out over the ocean. Or the engine hums and the interstate rolls past and you know all the lyrics to the song on the radio. Or the symphony is over, but its last note still stretches out in your mind; you stay in your seat just a little longer so that you don't break it. The moment, for reasons of its own, doesn't run away. It lingers. And when time starts again, that's when it occurs to you to wonder:

Where is it all going?

It's not even about death, not really. If the thread of your life suddenly snapped, well, then it would be over and you probably wouldn't be anywhere where you could think about it. (Or if you were, then that would be a different thread, still holding.) That might even be the best way to die, to be racing through your life and then (suddenly) not.

No, it isn't death that hits you. It's loss. Something slips into the unrecoverable past and you wonder: Was I supposed to do something with that? The tautness of your face, the zip on your fastball, the youthful energy that you seemed to have only a few days ago. Were you supposed to do something with that? The mentor who always seemed to have an answer, the grandmother who knew all the stories -- now they stare at you blankly and you wonder: Was I supposed to learn something from them? Was there some message I was supposed to hear so that I could carry it and pass it on? Did I miss it?

Maybe. Or maybe you can still remember it, if you stop and think.

And it's not just time, it's space. Somewhere, right now, children are dying from diseases that have been curable for half a century. Or just hunger, maybe, which has been curable forever. Wars are being fought, and people are banging the drums to start new ones. Some people are committing crimes, while others are looking at the options society offers them legally and realizing that none of them are acceptable. The natural world is still killing people with floods and earthquakes. Somewhere, right now, a perfectly good and innocent person is helplessly waiting for a hero to come.

Who? You? You can't. The dishes are piled in the sink and the checkbook is unbalanced and a voice on TV is saying that everything would be fine if only you bought this product. The kids' homework isn't done and the yard needs mowing and the in-laws are coming over tomorrow.

It's huge, the world is. It's full of people and they all want something. Something of yours, maybe. Maybe they should even have it, and maybe you'd even be willing to give it to them if only you knew of a path from your door to theirs. But you don't.

Or maybe it's all just another reality TV show. Who will get off that island and win the million dollars? Will that promising young actress ever stop drinking and get her life together? Is that politician really gay? Did that celebrity really murder his wife?

What's real? What isn't? What should you care about and why? Who has the time to sort it all out?


At least, no single person does, if they have to do it all by themselves. Nobody has the time. Nobody has the knowledge. Nobody is smart enough.

Not alone. Not by themselves.

But what if a bunch of us got together? Think about it. We could set aside some time to meet. We could remind each other to take that step back and look at the bigger picture. We could compare notes about what's important and what isn't. Maybe, together, we could sort some things out. Maybe, if we met often enough, we could learn to know each other and trust each other, so that when I get running so fast that I can't remember who I want to be, you can remember for me. And maybe I can remember for you. Maybe once in a while we could give each other a good shake, so that we can stop running and wake up.

We could try it.

We could talk about what's going on in time and space (or even outside of time and space, if it seems important for some reason). And among us all, on any given day, there might be somebody who knows what we need to know and understands what we need to do. Not the same person every time, but somebody. Or maybe we'll all bring a piece of the puzzle, and put a few of them together. Maybe enough to make out a picture.

It might work. It'd be a start, at least. Maybe, while we were doing it, we'd think of something else, something better.

So what would we call it, this bunch of people getting together to remind each other of our best selves, to wake each other up, to pool our attention and try to deal with a world that is too much for each of us alone? We could make up a new word for it. Or we could recycle an old word that (as far as I'm concerned) has been sitting around uselessly for generations now.

We could call it a church.

What do you think? We could try it. It might work.

See you Sunday, maybe? I think I'll be there.


uuMomma said...

Thanks for the smack upside the head. Oh, yeah, THAT's why we go to church.

Jess said...

Doug, this is brilliant. Thank you.

Matthew said...

Hm, I've never been in a church that was interested in those sorts of things. Seems like it would be nice, though.

Cody said...

Matt, I think you would enjoy the UU church. Are there any UU churches in Abilene?

kim said...

Though I often say I don't know why I go to church, I just know i miss it when I don't go, when pressed I have said pretty much what you did. Why do we forget so easily?

Robin Edgar said...

We could call it a "church" all you want, but unless it actually IS a bona fide church it would be false advertising. In his efforts to purge the Unitarian Church of Montreal of theistic trappings by removing the word "church" from its legal name, Rev. Ray Drennan once declared that it was "false-advertising" to call the Unitarian Church of Montreal a "church". I would have to agree with him on that point. The so-called Unitarian Church of Montreal, which recently changed its legal name from The Church of the Messiah to, U*Us guessed it. . . the Unitarian Church of Montreal, was not a "church" and IMNSHO is still not a bona fide`"church". AFAIAC Instead of pretending to be what they are not, many U*U "churches" should change their name to "congregation" or "community" or something. I expect that only a few U*U "churches" actually can bear that title with integrity these days.

Jack said...

I really enjoyed your comment and your article in UU World on the problem of the working class. I attend a UU discussion group at our church for many of the reasons you describe. I usually leave right after coffee and don't stay around for the "service", although I occassionally enjoy the "sermon" when I do. Having abandoned traditional religon and church, I find the "church light" service with its singing and rituals generally unsatisfying and vaguely irritating. I believe that it is mostly a case of many people not being able to break the "church" habit and the "congregation" being way too large for serious discussion in any but small break out groups. I am obvously a member of a small minority on this.

Theresa said...

Doug, just wanted to thank you for the column about the UU and the working class- the same questions might be asked of most of the progressive movement and the working class. I grew up CAtholic and working class in New York City, and have seen the ground my family lived on get smaller and smaller. We are hanging on like polar bears on those melting ice packs.

Rev. Jack Ditch said...

Doug, you highlight many of the things that draw me out of bed on Sunday and into church, yet you gloss over a particular that needs addressing: Why Unitarian Universalist church?

I look out at my local community and see more opportunities for human connection than I could ever take advantage of. I don't suppose that every community is that way, but living in a rather urban university town, I'm never lacking for things to do. As a universalist, I'm currently in the process of visiting a different church each month, and I'm fulfilling many of the needs you discuss here in the process. So why build and attend a particular church, a UUA church?

I'd like to propose that behind this question lies an uncomfortable truth that UUs don't like to admit, as it runs so counter to our purported principles: we, like most churchgoers of any faith, choose a particular church for the control it exerts over those gathered, forcing them into a mold we find palatable. We go to church to surround ourselves with those who are righteous in the manner that we ourselves are righteous, to escape both those who would condemn us and those who we would condemn. We may generally go to church to seek community, but we go to particular churches to find acceptable community, vetted of unpleasant influence and held in contrast to the discordant universal community that we never leave.

For those who believe in a higher power, this is not necessarily a bad thing, because they wish to move towards God and away from the godless. But for those of us who claim the name of Universalist, the justification winnows itself down into purely selfish, self-centered motivations. We're there because it discomforts and disgusts us to be elsewhere.

You say we should go to UU churches to pool our resources and deal with the world, but the world is already filled with many large organizations doing just that. It seems to me, rather, UUs build and attend UU churches in this day and age precisely because they can't deal with the world, because they won't pool their resources with anyone else, but rather insist on doing things in their own particular way, unable to make the kind of compromises necessary to build worldwide networks of hospitals, schools and charities in the manner of Roman Catholics or Evangelical Christians.

Don't get me wrong--everyone needs a safe space, away from the discord of the world, surrounded by the similar, and I myself have found as much in certain pockets of Unitarian Universalism. If UUs were up front about that, I probably wouldn't mind so much, but instead they mask it with claims of openness to all and worldwide community. At the end of the day, they just paint themselves as hypocrites to all those who don't fit in there--the working class, racial minorities, political conservatives, and all those millions of others who differ from the UU status quo.

When it really comes time to go out in the world and pool our resources to do right, that is the time to set denomination and church aside. Hopefully, someday, Unitarian Universalists will be ready to do so.

Doug Muder said...

rev. Jack Ditch says:
You say we should go to UU churches to pool our resources and deal with the world, but the world is already filled with many large organizations doing just that.

I've been surprised by the number of people who read my article this way. The "resources" I'm talking about are more cognitive than financial or physical. I hang together with UUs to try to process what's going on in the world. Large organizations like (I'm guessing at what you mean) the ACLU or Habitat for Humanity or other good-cause organizations don't do the same job.

And that's also one answer to the "why a UU church?" question. If I'm going to share the job of thinking things through, I want to do it with people whose thought processes I trust.

And I'm not sure I see what's wrong with avoiding "those who would condemn us". I don't want to pretend they don't exist, but I don't think I have to invite them into my inner circle either.

Rev. Jack Ditch said...

If I'm going to share the job of thinking things through, I want to do it with people whose thought processes I trust.

Then I have to question what gives you the ground to call this select group "Unitarian Universalist." Those are some mighty big words, that imply an encompassing of the whole, not just the people you trust.

You say, quite admirably, "We could learn to know each other and trust each other." But currently, my own UU community and the larger UUA all seem to be struggling with mistrust, and a desire to cut from our fold those who would threaten our pure ideals. I sympathize with that desire, and I agree with you when you speak of the desire to work with those you trust.

I'd suggest to you that "traditional" churches are not riding so much on the threat of eternity as you imagine, but rather constitute various groups of individuals seeking that same kind of safe, trusting space that you speak of. They may do it crudely, for instance by excluding homosexuals so that the heterosexuals feel comfortable, but I've not known too many adults who attend church out of fear. Rather, they go because it's the one place they can trust.

If that's all UU church is to us, then we are not so different from those other churches as we imagine, and we're not really living up to the words behind the acronym of our denomination.

I suggest to you that the values of Unitarian Universalism call us to walk the exact opposite direction, to take ourselves out of the comfort zone of people we trust, and truly engage the world. We may build spaces of comfort within our church, and there's room for many exclusive groups within the whole, but we should build the church as a whole and call it Unitarian Universalist precisely so that we may encounter those we cannot trust, so that we might get to know them and begin to build trust. That's Unitarian Universalism, One and All.

And I'm not sure I see what's wrong with avoiding "those who would condemn us". I don't want to pretend they don't exist, but I don't think I have to invite them into my inner circle either.

I wouldn't call that wrong, so much as I'd call confronting those who condemn us right. It does no good to hide. But that is the end point, the climax of the religious journey, if you will; facing off with those who would do us harm, with nothing but love and compassion in our hearts.

That journey begins at the other end of the spectrum, confronting those we would condemn and learning to love them in all their human frailty despite their all-too-human imperfections. When we can do that, then we will be ready to confront those who judge us.

Robin Edgar said...

Talking about killing two birds with one stone Rev. Jack!

Montreal Unitarian U*Us, to say nothing of U*Us more generally. . . can and do "confront" those they definitely DO condemn and those who judge U*Us by "confronting" yours truly. Now if only in all their human frailty U*Us could learn to stop worrying and love the "bumb". . . ;-)

Citizen said...

We might consider reorganizing our societies so that the whole world could be like that every day. It'd be a much friendlier and relaxed place for all of us.