Monday, February 27, 2017

Why Be a Congregation?

Presented at the Unitarian Universalists of Lakewood Ranch, Florida on February 26, 2017.

First Reading: “Principles and Purposes for All of Us”

The next thing in the Order of Service is Responsive Reading #594, “Principles and Purposes for All of Us”. But before we read that, I like to say a few words about it.

I grew up in a Lutheran church where we recited the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday. So when I became a UU, at first I tried to interpret the Principles as some kind of Unitarian Universalist creed.

But that didn’t work very well. You see, when my old Lutheran congregation had said its creed, we were proclaiming that certain things were facts: The world was created by an almighty God, Jesus rose from the dead, Judgment Day was coming, and so on.

But the UU Principles aren’t facts. “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations” is not a fact. I wish “respect for the interdependent web” were a fact, but in the world I see around me, it isn’t.

So my second thought was that the Principles are opinions about how the world should be. But if what unites is is that we stand apart from the world and having opinions about it, that seems like a weak foundation to build a community around.

Eventually, I came to view the Principles as vision statements: They describe not the world that is, but the world that we are working together to bring into existence. So as we do this reading, I invite you to try on that interpretation: We’re not stating facts, we’re not just having opinions; we’re sharing a vision of the world we want to make.

We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We believe that each and every person is important.

We affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.

We believe that all people should be treated fairly.

We affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.

We believe that our churches are places where all people are accepted, and where we keep on learning together.

We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

We believe that each person must be free to search for what is true and right in life.

We affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.

We believe that all people should have a voice and a vote about the things which concern them.

We affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

We believe that we should work for a peaceful, fair, and free world.

We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

We believe that we should care for our planet earth.

Second Reading: “The Tilted Metronome”

The next reading is from the essay “The Tilted Metronome” by Ian Carroll, who I know because we’re part of the same congregation in Bedford, Massachusetts.

One of the advantages of belonging to a congregation is that because you’re seeing the same people over and over again, ideas bounce back and forth. If you put something out there, somebody might improve it and give it back to you.

A few years ago I gave a talk where I compared a healthy spiritual life to a pendulum that swings back and forth between action and contemplation. One is not better than the other; they’re parts of a whole. We do inner work; we do outer work.

A few weeks ago, Ian took that metaphor and changed it a little. Being a musician, he turned my pendulum into a metronome. And he observed that if you put a metronome on a tilted surface, one side of the cycle is longer than the other: tiiiick-tock, tiiick-tock.

He used that to represent the idea that we all have natural inclinations that make us more comfortable on one side of the spectrum than the other, and yet we still need both to be complete.

Ian has always experienced himself primarily as a contemplative person, but as he looks at the current situation in the world, he is feeling the need to enter an active phase. And he closes with this lovely vision of how the members of a congregation balance each other.

“The week after the election, yes the one that ushered Donald Trump into the presidency, Rev. John spoke of the urgency of this moment in history, and of the need to immerse ourselves more deeply in beauty, art, nature, and creativity. But he also spoke of the need to be outraged, to protest, to fight for justice with greater intensity than ever before.

“Not surprisingly, I initially gravitated towards his encouragement to find more quiet and solace in our lives. That’s what I need, I thought.

“The more I’ve considered his words, though, the more I’ve realized I need to respond to his exhortation to act. I’m certain that others in the pews that day had the opposite reaction to me, and felt their hearts leap at the call to action. But like me, they too will feel, in time, their pendulums swinging the other way.

“If you’re one of those people, and you feel the need to take a step back, to regroup for a little while, there might be a vacant seat up in the rear of the balcony. Because I’ll be in a pew near the front. …

“I will always be a listener first and foremost. That’s how I feel most comfortable. Tiiiick, tock, tiiiick, tock, is the sound my metronome—my tilted metronome—makes. If you are a doer, yours may make quite a different sound.

“In this healthy, spirited community, we honor both. But the collective, beautiful weight of this congregation also challenges us, subtly shifting the ground on which we stand, altering the tilt of our metronomes. And so too does the ominous gravity of the present era.

“Now is a time for us all to seek comfort, but more importantly, to embrace discomfort as well. That’s precisely why I’ll be sitting near the front of our Sanctuary, and it’s also why you might drift to the back, for a time.

“There is a chorus of pendulums in motion around us, and one inside each of us, all swinging between their poles. Listen—can you hear them? From contemplation to action. From outer work to inner work. You protest, and I listen. I rise up, and you observe.

“Together we will make ourselves, and our world, better. As individuals and as a community, in this historic moment, we need to find quiet. And we will make noise.”

Sermon: Why are we here this morning?

It’s exciting to be here at such a young fellowship, because when something is this new, you never know where it’s going to go. Maybe this group will maintain its small, intimate character, where everybody has a chance to know everybody else. Or maybe it will grow by leaps and bounds, and someday become a congregation of hundreds or even thousands.

Maybe you’ll stick with the fellowship model, maybe you’ll evolve towards the traditional church model with a building and a staff, or maybe you’ll come up with something completely unique, so that years from now groups all over the country will say, “We’re following the Lakewood Ranch model.”

Nobody knows what the future might hold, and that’s always keeps things interesting.

One thing I can guess about the present, though, is that if you have friends who aren’t UUs, and if you happen to mention to them that you’re involved in starting a new Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, they probably look at you with a certain amount of confusion. Why would you do that?

Other religions give their followers very good reasons for joining a congregation, or even for starting new ones. But most of those reasons don’t apply to us.

In the church where I grew up, for example, we showed up on Sundays because one of the commandments says, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” Of course, we never considered observing the original Jewish Sabbath, but we had reinterpreted that commandment to mean that God was ordering us to go to church on Sunday.

My Catholic neighbors had even better reasons to go to church, because their place in Heaven was not determined by their personal relationship with God, it depended on rituals that could only be performed under the auspices of the Catholic Church.

A lot of sects teach that it is vitally important to believe the correct dogmas, and how are you going to know what those are unless you come and listen while some authority stands in a pulpit and tells you? Some teach that there is a cosmic battle going on between Good and Evil, and joining a church is how you pick a side.

All good reasons, but none that apply to us.

Universalists will tell you that everyone is already going to Heaven, no matter what they believe or where they spend their Sunday mornings. And UUs who don’t think of themselves as Universalists usually don’t have much to say about the afterlife. If we believe in it at all, we know so little about it that we can’t even guess how you might improve your prospects. So if it turns out there is a Judgment Day, and we get asked how faithfully we attended a UU church, I will be as surprised as anybody.

As for dogma, the person in the pulpit — today it’s me, next week it might be you. There’s no particular authority here. If a sermon makes sense or helps you figure out how you want to live, that’s great. But if it doesn’t, you should follow your own conscience rather than do what you’re told. Institutionally, the Unitarian Universalist Association doesn’t spell out how you should live or who you can love or what you have to eat or wear.

So what does a UU church do for you?

For a long time, a chief selling point of Unitarian Universalism was in all the things that it doesn’t do. It doesn’t ask you to check your brain at the door. It doesn’t make you feel guilty for asking questions or having doubts. It doesn’t dogmatize some pre-scientific cosmology or social prejudices that come down to us from the Bronze Age. It doesn’t set a clergy in authority over you. It doesn’t insist that you recite a creed you don’t really believe.

That less-is-more idea is summed up in a probably apocryphal story about Fanny Holmes, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Supposedly, Fanny was talking to one of Oliver’s clerks, who knew that the old man wasn’t particularly religious, and so expressed some surprise when he discovered that they were Unitarians.

“Well,” Fanny explained, “we’re from Boston. In Boston you have to be something. And Unitarian is as near nothing as you can get.”

That argument made a certain amount of sense a hundred years ago, but it really doesn’t any more. Because today, you don’t have to be something. If you’re looking for a religion that’s near nothing, you can pick nothing.

A lot of people do, and more all the time. The Pew Research Center says that in 2014, 23% of Americans considered themselves religiously unaffiliated. That was up sharply from 16% in 2007.

Even the people who identify with a religion don’t necessarily belong to any congregation. In rough numbers, about a thousand American congregations affiliate with the UUA, accounting for about 200,000 people. But pollsters who ask people about their religions estimate that about 600,000 Americans call themselves Unitarian Universalists.

Now that makes for some head-scratching at the UUA. Think about it: We could triple the size of every UU congregation in the country without converting anybody. All we’d have to do is sign up all the people who already would tell a pollster that they’re UUs.

Nobody’s sure exactly who these other 400,000 are. Some are probably young adults who grew up UU, and never revolted against it, but didn’t bother to find a church of their own after they left home. Others might be older people who had a congregation up north, but never joined a new one after they retired and moved south.

Some are probably people who have heard of Unitarian Universalism and agree with it philosophically, but they’re just not joiners. Like Kurt Vonnegut, for example. When he gave the Ware Lecture at General Assembly in 1984, he said, “In order not to seem a spiritual quadriplegic to strangers trying to get a fix on me, I sometimes say I’m a Unitarian Universalist.” But as far as I can tell, he never signed anybody’s membership book.

I once made a project out of verifying one of those lists of “Famous UUs” you sometimes see on the internet. Dr. Seuss was a tough case to decide. He certainly would have fit in. I found a lot of resonances, a lot of very UU-sounding statements, but no specific congregation that claimed him. Maybe he just wasn’t a joiner.

A lot people aren’t. And why should they be? Like Fanny Holmes’ “You have to be something”, many arguments for joining don’t make sense any more.

If you’re looking intellectual stimulation, you could spend your Sunday morning reading The New York Times, or watching one of the news talk shows, or listening to a TED talk on YouTube.

Some UU churches put their whole service on YouTube. You can watch at home, on your own schedule. You don’t have to get out and rub shoulders with other people.

And that points out the first, fairly obvious, answer to the question of why people attend and why they join: You attend because you want to be in the physical presence of other people. That’s not a cost, it’s a benefit. And you join because you want to be together with some of the same people over and over again, to recognize them and be recognized by them.

There are a whole bunch of reasons you might want that, but the catch-all term for them is community. People come to UU churches looking for community.

Sometimes community is nothing more complicated than just looking for friends. Judgmental people might think that motive sounds a little lightweight compared to saving your immortal soul or joining a side in the great cosmic battle, but personally, I’m not in a position to look down on it.

My wife and I met John and Kathy Brackett [the Lakewood Ranch members who invited us to speak] in 1988 at a UU church in Lexington, Massachusetts. They went on to have children and we didn’t, so to a certain extent their kids became our kids. Through them, we experienced two decades worth of Halloween costumes and Christmas mornings and birthday parties and graduations.

In fact, UU churches are where I met most of the people I consider my friends for life. If those relationships were all I had ever gotten out of Unitarian Universalism, it would still be a pretty good deal. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, and your mileage may vary, but for me personally, UU congregations have a higher percentage of people I could imagine being friends with than any other groups I know.

I consciously started taking advantage of that about 13 or 14 years ago. That childhood Lutheran church I mentioned in was in Quincy, Illinois, a town of 40,000 that is about a hundred miles from anyplace you’ve heard of. It’s not on the way to anywhere else, so unless that’s your destination, you’ll never see it.

In adulthood, I came back about twice a year to see my parents. One day I was walking around the city, through the parks, past the town square where Lincoln and Douglas debated, when I thought about the fact that like myself, the people I knew from childhood and high school had almost all moved far away. So I had very few local connections of my own any more. And it dawned on me that someday my parents would die, and that when they did, I would never have any reason to come back here. That suddenly seemed tragic to me, as if some important part of my history was in danger of disappearing without a trace.

So I decided I needed my own Quincy community. For a lot of reasons, I couldn’t pass as a Lutheran any more, but there was also a small Unitarian church that had been started by some Emersonians back in the 1800s. So I started going there whenever I was in town, and arranged to talk there if their calendar had an opening. I also went to social events, met people, and looked for friends.

And wouldn’t you know, it worked. As my parents declined, I had to visit more and more often, and stay for longer stretches. Five years ago when my father died and I had to clean out the house and start settling the estate, I was in town for a couple of months. And that community took care of me as if I had been there forever. And now, years down the line, the future I was afraid of has not come to pass. My parents are gone, but I still have a relationship with my home town. I have people I care about there, and reasons to go back. And I do.

So if your purpose in being here is nothing deeper or more complicated than just that you need more nice people in your life, I get that.

But at the same time, I think the reason it works is that a Unitarian Universalist congregation is more than just a place where a lot of nice people hang out. It’s a community of shared values. I think John and Kathy welcomed us into their children’s lives not just because they liked us, but because we also were committed to the values they wanted Josh and Tory to learn. When I reached out to the Quincy Unitarians, in part they responded because they’re generous, hospitable people. But also I think they recognized, even as we were just meeting each other, that we shared something deep.

It’s no small thing to carry in your imagination the vision of a world where the UU Principles can be taken for granted, where of course all people have worth and dignity, of course we practice justice and compassion, of course we all nurture the interdependent web. As a description of how the world is, it’s pretty naive. But as a vision of what could be, of what we could work towards and make happen, it’s powerful.

Something else happens when you take seriously the distance between the world we live in and the world we hope for. If you think of yourself as just one person, alone, it’s overwhelming. Justice, democracy, the search for truth — what can I, by myself, do to bring any of that into reality? If the Unitarian Universalist vision is going to be anything more than just a pleasant daydream, we need allies. We need each other.

That really came home to me the last time I was in Quincy, which was the weekend after the election — that same Sunday when Ian was listening to our minister back in Massachusetts. Months before, when I had volunteered to lead a service in Quincy on the second Sunday in November, I had pictured a very different situation than the one I found when I arrived in town on Thursday afternoon, not even 48 hours after we found out who our next president would be.

Now, I don’t want to try to speak for all UUs — I’m taking advantage of that lack-of-authority-in-the-pulpit thing I mentioned a few minutes ago. But to me personally, last fall’s campaign felt like a continuous assault on my values and what I think of as Unitarian Universalist values. Day after day, I would hear that climate science is some kind of sinister conspiracy, that women often lie about sexual assault, that there is no racism worth talking about in America any more, that the international system in which America has 5% of the world’s population but consumes 25% of its resources — that system is actually rigged against us. When Mexicans come into this country and do our dirty jobs for less than minimum wage, they’re exploiting us. When I can buy inexpensive shirts at Walmart because people in Bangladesh are so desperate that they work in factories that could collapse on them at any time, and sometimes do, killing hundreds — that’s them taking advantage of me.

Rather than encouraging people to see each other’s worth and dignity, we were told to fear and resent anyone who is different from us. If we’re native-born, we should fear immigrants. If we’re in an opposite-sex marriage, we should resent the same-sex couples who now have the same rights we do. If we’re from a Christian or Jewish background, we should fear Muslims. If we’re white, we should fear blacks, and be grateful that police are so willing to shoot them down if they seem to be getting out of line.

For months, I had stayed calm by believing that America wasn’t really like that. These kinds of arguments came from a fringe group, a tiny minority. And then, they won. Suddenly, everything I had believed about my country and my fellow citizens seemed to be wrong.

If I felt that way up in New England, the UUs in Quincy had it much, much worse. Quincy is precisely the kind of heartland small town journalists go to when they’re trying to understand the new right-wing populism. The county voted 3-to–1 for Trump, and the discrepancy in yard signs and bumper stickers was even larger.

In the Boston suburbs, we speculated abstractly about the anger of the rural white working class. In Quincy, they looked at the neighbors and wondered: “How can these be the same people I’ve lived next to all these years?” If I felt challenged, they felt surrounded, encircled. Was it even still safe for them to have their own yard signs and bumper stickers? Was it safe to talk openly in public places where people you don’t know might overhear and respond?

So when the congregation gathered that Sunday, they weren’t just looking to hear an interesting talk and hang around with some nice people. They needed to be together. They needed to look into each other’s eyes and see some hope and courage.

That morning I had them do the same responsive reading we just did, so that they could hear themselves and hear each other proclaim what Unitarian Universalists stand for. In that time and place, it felt like a radical act. It felt like the beginning of resistance.

And that, I believe, is also why we join. Because if I am alone, it is easy to become intimidated. It is easy to start thinking of UU values as just some funny ideas I have, that maybe I shouldn’t talk about too loudly. If I am alone, it is easy to fall into despair, to think “I used to have these visions of a better world, but it didn’t happen. What was I thinking? I used to try to change things, but wasn’t that stupid? I’m just one person. Why did I think that my thoughts, my beliefs, my values could change anything or should matter to anybody?”

So yeah, it’s great to have friends. It’s good to have a pleasant place to go on a Sunday morning. It’s nice if somebody will provide interesting ideas to discuss over breakfast.

But there’s a deeper reason to be a congregation. We come together to hold each other up through difficult times. On days when you are feeling intimidated, you can be with people who have courage. When you feel yourself slipping into despair, you can look into the eyes of people who still have hope. Maybe today I do that for you. Maybe tomorrow you do it for me.

We join together because we are stronger that way. We need each other.

1 comment:

Alexx Kay said...

This is off-topic, but: I have frequently shared your essay on "Red Family, Blue Family" with friends over the years. The web site it was on appears to have gone defunct. Could you republish it somewhere?