Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sermon: "Goodbye from Holmes' Prairie" (Delivered 6-15-14)




Liturgy for Worship

Opening Words – Otherwise by Jane Kenyon
Prayer – by Martha Munson, adapted
Reading – We Give Thanks by Max Coots
Hymns #38 “Morning Has Broken”, #15 “The Lone Wild Bird”, #357 Bright Morning Stars


Sermon
Last evening I was out in Abilene, Kansas, performing a wedding ceremony for Brian Becker and Rachelle Kuntz, a young couple who’ve been attending church here at SMUUCh for more than a year. With a wedding to officiate and the drive to central Kansas and back, I just didn’t have time to write a sermon for this morning. I thought I would have time to write one while I was out there, but instead I used my time to drive a bit further down the road and stop by for a visit in Holmes’ Prairie.

It isn’t easy to explain where Holmes’ Prairie is on the map. It’s out there on the Kansas plains, west of Wichita, geographically, but well to the right of Liberal, geographically and otherwise. Just keep driving until the NPR signal fades to static and you’ll arrive at the boundary that demarcates God’s country from godforsaken country.

Holmes’ Prairie is a town that has something to say about saying goodbye. Folks have been saying goodbye to the town as long as anyone can remember. Just as Unitarian abolitionists flocked to Lawrence before the Civil War, Holmes’ Prairie was first established by a band of Unitarian temperance activists from the northeast. They even named the town after Oliver Wendell Holmes. But they wound up finding life out on the plains a little too sobering and soon packed up their belongings and left. Go west dry men. They wound up establishing a commune and winery in Northern California.

Yesterday I rambled into town and dropped by Annie’s Pie Shop on Main Street. As I suspected, the town curmudgeon, Frank Rodden, was there, keeping watch over the comings and goings and perking up his ears to whatever passes for gossip in a town where nothing ever happens. “Hello, Preacher Boy!” Frank bellowed as I walked in. “Pull up a seat and Annie will bring you out a slice of banana cream pie. I got your letter saying you were heading off to North Carolina. I was wondering if you were going to pay me a visit to say goodbye in person before you left.”

“Well, Frank,” I said, “I only make it out to Holmes’ Prairie about once a year. It’s never exactly convenient to visit, but now I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to get back this way. I suppose I could follow you on Twitter, but it just wouldn’t be the same. By the way, what could you possibly tweet about here in Holmes’ Prairie?”

Frank grinned and replied, “Preacher, we are a town with 140 characters. Real characters, too. But do me a favor will you, Preacher? When you get there to Tar Heel country you need to take a trip out to East Pokeberry. The directions on how to get there are a little vague, but I’m sure you’ll find it. And when you get there, pay a visit to my cousin Jerry. He’s a cranky old man like me with a lot of sincerely held wrong opinions. He’s especially wrong when it comes to his opinions about barbecue. You’ll have to decide for yourself, I reckon.”

“Thanks, Frank. I’ll be sure to look him up when I get there. I mostly came by this weekend because I wanted to say goodbye. And, because I’m procrastinating on this last sermon. But while I’m here, tell me a bit about the news from Holmes’ Prairie, just for old time’s sake.”


Frank started by telling me about the latest news from the Holmes’ Prairie Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, or HPUUF as they call it for short, and since they’re your cousins in the faith, I wanted to bring you an update from their congregation. Yes, there really is a UU Fellowship in Holmes’ Prairie. They have ten members, nine singers in the choir, eight committees, seven principles, six sources, and their potlucks offer five different kinds of carbohydrates and four different types of textured vegetable protein. They proudly disbelieve in all three persons of the Trinity but do believe that there are at least two sides to everything: on the one hand and on the other hand. At the heart of the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship is their one indefatigable matriarch, Mabel Pool, who herds them all like cats and urges them to live lives of faithful service in the community. Mabel is the first one to organize a protest when the town council is about to do something backwards and needs to be set straight. She’s the first one to donate a pile of controversial books to the library whenever someone starts advocating censorship. And she’s the first one to organize hot meals whenever someone in the town’s been having a tough time and needs a little help. She even makes sure the casseroles are all locally-sourced, farm-fresh, and vegan.

Restless souls particularly struggle in a place like Holmes’ Prairie. Folks with critical eyes and striving spirits tend to bump heads with the town’s plodding and slow-to-change way of life. And the Unitarians in Holmes’ Prairie tend to be the most restless of the town’s citizens. My friend Frank had needled me before about the unorthodox communion practices of us Unitarians. Like most Unitarian Universalists, the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship observes a Flower Communion in the spring and a Water Communion at the end of the summer. They also stole our idea of having a Honey Crisp Apple Communion service in the fall. They liked these communion services so much that they decided to develop even more communion rituals, especially since it’s easy to get by without a proper sermon when you do these rituals. Sundays in Holmes’ Prairie are mighty hard to fill.

This year the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship decided to close the church year by holding their first ever Complaint Communion. Instead of bringing a flower from the garden or water from your summer travels, you bring a list of your complaints and criticisms to church. In the true embracing nature of Unitarian Universalism, all complaints are welcome. You can complain about family, where you live, the weather, politics, or social injustice. You can even complain about your fellow UUs. It was an open microphone Sunday and each person was invited to share their list of everything that disappointed or frustrated or annoyed them in the previous year.

The Complaint Communion has an interesting effect on those who participate. It is hard to say goodbye to another year, to admit that you’re a year older, to face the passing days, to accept mortality. It is hard to face that we haven’t achieved perfection, that we haven’t arrived at the promised land. And the complaining functions as a kind of pushing away, pushing away others who are close to us, pushing away the realities in which we find ourselves, holding the world at arm’s length as a safety device. After everyone had shared – the service ran nearly two hours – they all tried their best to sing hymn number 304, “A Fierce Unrest,” and pledged to live in the coming year, as the song puts it, with stinging discontent, even more than in the year before.


Lately, on these sweaty summer nights, down by the barely trickling river, ripples appear on the surface of the water. A young man, still a teenager, stands on the riverbank throwing stones. Jeremy Hall was the valedictorian at the Tri-County Regional high school. In August, he’ll be off to the University of Colorado with a full-ride scholarship. He’s going further away than any of his classmates. Late at night he goes to the riverbank to contemplate the goodbyes he’ll soon have to say.

Last summer Jeremy had been invited to have the experience of a lifetime, a six-week program on rainforest ecology in Costa Rica. He’d gone and had fun and was homesick the whole time. But when he got back something had changed. His group of friends was different. Best friends now were no longer speaking, and people were hanging out in different constellations than before , and they seemed to all be dating someone different than they had been dating at the beginning of the summer. Jeremy spent half his senior year trying to make sense of all the new developments, then gave up. Now, with college orientation just a handful of weeks away, it seemed to him like he was stepping out for real. Not a six week, “See you later” but an honest goodbye, at least until winter break. Jeremy wasn’t sad to be leaving Holmes’ Prairie except he was sad to be leaving Holmes’ Prairie. But it was a goodbye for the sake of his growth. Jeremy tossed another stone and thought to himself, “These goodbyes are hard, but at least I’ll never have to say them again.” Or, that’s what he told himself.


The biggest news recently in Holmes’ Prairie has been the retirement of Pastor Solomon J. Samuels III, pastor of the First Full-Gospel Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie. Old Sol is something of an anomaly, especially among Baptist preachers. His hardline Baptist theology became sun-bleached and windswept out on the plains leaving him to preach a kind of Christian existentialism that confounded most of his parishioners. But they loved him nonetheless because he could be counted on to show up when he’s needed. Pastor Sol’s theology wasn’t exactly based on the infallible glory and grace of God, but he worshipped God nonetheless, finding in humanity even less worthy of worship, and regarding the human condition, with its hypocrisies, its self-justifications, its foibles and failings, with a proper mixture of humor and compassion.

Pastor Sol had served the surviving remnant of the First Full-Gospel Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie with reliability and predictability over a span of nearly three decades. His sermons had preceded him in retirement by several years.

Climbing into the pulpit on his last Sunday in Holmes’ Prairie, Pastor Sol addressed his flock, and I’m thankful to Frank for passing along to me a copy of his remarks. I think they’re worth sharing with you. Here are a few excerpts from Solomon J. Samuels’ final sermon in Holmes’ Prairie,
It’s been said that goodbyes are a natural part of life. We live by endings that give way to new beginnings, which end and begin again in time. The seasons in their course, the cycles of life that surround us, attest to this fact. As the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes taught, “There is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” But, why is it so hard for us to accept endings, to say goodbyes? They are a part of life, are they not? 
There’s a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that speaks, I think, to the difficulty we have with goodbyes. He wrote, 
“These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence… But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.”
Emerson was an awfully bright guy but can be a little hard to follow at times. He’s talking about having the courage and the grace to live fully in the present moment, not longing and pining for how things might have turned out otherwise and not to worry anxiously about the future. The word “Goodbye” literally comes from the contraction of a parting blessing. “God be with ye” was shorted to “goodbye.” Adios and adieu. Leave the mystery of the future to God and take this time to be in the present. 
Submitting ourselves to endings need not mean giving up all that we’re thankful for. Indeed, we might all be truly grateful for a bounty of people while at the same time recognizing that humankind ought not to live by only one harvest. And so we might pray,
Gracious God, help us to be fully present for this moment of our lives, with the beauty of the present rose, neither lamenting the past nor despairing for the future.
Help us to have the grace to say Goodbye, simply trusting that God will be with us in days to come as God is with us even now. 
Remind us amidst moments of change that change is holy. And help us especially in this time not to look upon our brothers or sisters with eagle-eyed malice, but grant us the grace to cover each other with the mantle of Christian charity.\ 
May we have the humor and compassion to be open to our differences and even to the differing feelings that reside simultaneously within our heart. We are neither fully joyful nor fully sad, neither fully thankful nor fully ungrateful, neither entirely peaceful nor entirely restless. We are dappled beings, and, oh, the good Lord is a lover of dappled things.
Our prayers are for each other and my prayers are with each and everyone one of you.
Amen.


That, my friends, is the news from Holmes’ Prairie, a small town out on the Kansas plains, west of Wichita and well to the right of Liberal. It’s a town where nothing ever happens, but if we can take a moment to slow down, breathe, and notice, we’ll be sure to find abundant lessons for our living.


Sermon: "We've Changed Each Other" (Delivered 6-8-14)

Reading
The reading this morning was written by you. Actually, it was written by the seven members of the ministerial search committee when this church opened its search for a new minister in the fall of 2002. That search committee wrote the following when asked to describe the new minister you were seeking:

“Rarely to a congregation comes the defining moment which will change it forever. That moment has arrived for this congregation as we seek our new minister. Our church is poised to grow significantly in the coming years – in spiritual depth, in commitment to the community, and in membership. To do this, we need a ministerial leader to whom we can give our hearts and with whom we can share this journey.
“In this minister we seek a voice that will preach the message of love, acceptance, hope, forgiveness, and justice. The voice that will rejoice in our children, celebrate our successes, succor us when we are down, lift us up to our duty and our aspirations, marry our children, bury our dead. We ask no more, or less.
“And just as we are not a perfect congregation, we realize that there are no perfect ministers. But there are nearly perfect sermons, and we delight in those.
“We seek a spiritual leader who can inspire or challenge us from the pulpit with provocative messages that show us new paths for individual growth and spirituality, and help us understand ourselves better. We want what we hear on Sunday morning to stay with us through the week.
“As we continue to grow in membership, we will look to a minister who is warm and welcoming to current members, as well as prospective members; who will actively promote a greater sense of community for all members; and who will actively participate in the life of the church.
[…]
“And… we hope for a minister who will love us and support us on our spiritual journey in spite of our faults and eccentricities, and whom we can support on your spiritual journey in spite of your own faults and eccentricities.
“This is an exciting and optimistic time for our church. If you find this exciting and compelling for you as a prospective minister, we welcome your sincere consideration.”


Sermon
In early October, 2002, I paid a visit to the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association to meet with the UUA’s then settlement director, John Weston. Rev. Weston had had come to Boston after serving as the minister over at All Souls UU Church in Kansas City. In Boston, his job – his ministry – was helping ministers and congregations find good matches.

A week earlier I had had a successful interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, our denomination’s credentialing body, and was cleared to begin searching for a congregation to serve. I was going to meet with John to get advice on where I ought to apply. I carried with me a list of churches I was thinking about and John told me which ones he thought would be good places for me, which ones he thought I shouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, and which ones would never in a million years consider calling a 25year-old minister straight out of seminary so I shouldn’t even bother to waste my time. Then Reverend Weston said the following words, “There’s a church that wasn’t on your list but it’s one I’d strongly advise that you take a look at. It’s in Kansas but keep an open mind.” He then went on to say many good things about this church and about life in Kansas City.

I had never been to Kansas. I had never even been to the Midwest. Everything I knew about this part of the country was from what I could see from 35,000 feet. When this church posted its opening, I remembered John’s advice and took a peek, not really expecting to be interested. Then I read the words of the search committee, “Rarely to a congregation comes the defining moment which will change it forever.” I was intrigued.

Throughout the materials prepared by the search committee there was a palpable sense of energy and spirit, excitement and possibility. There was a future-oriented hopefulness that I found compelling. For example, in the materials that search committees prepare for prospective ministers to see, the last section asks the search committee to, “Describe the worst mistake your new minister could make.” Some search committees take this question far too literally. The worst mistake would be to commit a felony that devastates the reputation of our church in the community. That’s true but it conveys a low expectation of ministry. Axe murderers need not apply. Many churches tell candidates that the worst mistake they could make would be to make changes. But here’s what SMUUCh’s search committee wrote more than 11 years ago. “The worst mistake that our new minister could make would be to not show enthusiasm and energy in his or her approach to our church, the congregation and his or her position. We are eager for energy and excitement.” Wow, I thought. This was the church for me. Was it really what you wanted? I took you at your word.

In the end, I wound up applying for 15 churches in 13 states and one Canadian province, from Washington state to Georgia, from New England to Nevada. Fortunately, I had my choice of multiple places to serve, but I chose you. You were my top choice. Luckily, the feeling was mutual.

This has been a successful ministry in many ways. If you compare my ministry here to the ministries at those other fourteen congregations where I could have conceivably landed, we come out far ahead. I have to be careful when I say this, because church is not a competition. However, for the sake of comparison, only one of those 14 other congregations is still served by the minister they called 11 years ago. Numerically speaking, we’ve grown more than any of those other congregations. And, I’d take our successes, accomplishments, and strengths over anything those other churches could boast.

This morning I want to talk about some of the things that I’m most proud of from these past 11 years. I want to also talk about some of the things that have been disappointments. I want to share some of the ways in which I think I’ve changed and I want to share some of the ways in which I think you’ve changed. And, I want to share some of the things that I hope for you in the future.

When I came here I came with a mandate to attend to and to strengthen the worship life of this congregation. You were very clear that you wanted a preacher. To quote Theodore Parker, “I’ve taken great care with the composition of my sermons; they’ve never been far from my mind.” I am my own toughest critic and Anne would be the first one to tell you how I wrestle with the sermons I compose. My approach to sermons is that I try not to be boring and try not to offer you conventional wisdom, empty platitudes, or the dry talking points of all that’s boring and tedious and self-obsessed within Unitarian Universalism. I’ve endeavored to be honest with you and, as my contract with the church puts it, to “express my values, views, and commitments without fear or favor.” I will continue to do that this morning.

I’m proud of my work with many classes of the Preaching Practicum whose members have wrestled sermons into being and delivered them to their fellow congregants, and I’m proud of the worship committee’s Distinguished Guest minister program through which we’ve invited people like Victoria Safford, James Ishmael Ford, and Marlin Lavanhar to grace us in the pulpit.

Pastorally, I’ve been especially moved by the opportunity to memorialize members of this congregation’s founding generation as well as other pillars of the church. I will always treasure the privilege of officiating the service celebrating the life of Bob Neustrom, our founding president, and to eulogize other pillars of our church.

Another thing that I am most proud of in my ministry with you is the fact that this church is a healthy place for theological diversity. I’ve not had to fight worship wars with you. I’ve not had to watch my language. Nobody gets angry when I talk about God or Jesus or choose a reading from the Bible. I have to tell you, as a minister who tends more towards theism – as an increasing number of UU ministers do – I’m grateful for this congregation’s embrace of theological diversity. I think my ministry is evidence of the fact that UU ministers are focused on doing good ministry, not on trying to bring others to agreement with their own theological views.

Social justice is one of the areas I wish I had approached differently here at SMUUCh. I’ve done a lot of social justice work in my years in Kansas City. I done work around reproductive justice, with the Mainstream Coalition, and with civil liberties through organizations like the ACLU. My regret is that I often took this work on as a lone individual, rather than leading us into the work together as a congregation. I did this for several reasons. One of the reasons was that it was lonely moving here all by myself and since I couldn’t go to the UU church to make friends, a meeting of community activists was the next best place. But, more than that, my own sense of professional ethics told me that it wasn’t right to use my position of leadership to push the congregation towards working for my one particular personal passion. I felt that would be a conflict of interest. I attended organizing meetings and nonprofit board meetings, spoke at press conferences, testified in Topeka, and was flown to Washington D.C. as a featured speaker at a national leadership summit of a nonprofit organization – but when I did these things, I did them as an individual, on my own time. Our church’s model of social justice has been that any member of the church with a personal passion has been invited to start their own social justice initiative, the success of which is based on that person’s ability to recruit others to support that cause and their own willingness to keep that program going. But now, I believe this isn’t the best way for a church to approach social justice work. It is a libertarian way of doing social justice; each person should do what they want as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else. This approach actually disempowers the work the church might do.

In my second year as the minister here I offered an adult religious education experience called the Social Justice Workshop. Eight people signed up having no idea what it would be. I walked in and said that the role of this class is for this random group of people to discern, design, and perform a social justice project. It was an experiment. I wanted to see what would happen. Out of the blue, this group decided that they wanted to lead our church through the process of officially becoming a Welcoming Congregation, a congregation-wide learning process about how to be more welcoming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Our church had actually attempted this process in the mid-90s but the process stalled, which had nothing to do with our intentions about welcoming and everything to do with the absence of a process for doing church-wide justice work. This group successfully brought the church through the Welcoming Congregation process. I’m tremendously proud of the work of this group.

Allowing any member with a personal passion to develop their own social justice project is a libertarian way of doing social justice work. It is undemocratic. If I had it to do over again, I would have engaged not just eight people, but 90 or 280 in a discernment process to select an inclusive social justice focus for the church. Such a focus would speak to our great longing, the community’s great need, and our sphere of influence.

I want to talk a little bit about growth this morning because I feel that growth has been at the forefront of my ministry with you. The first thing I want to say is that we’ve successfully grown from a church with fewer than 200 members to one with more than 300 during my tenure here. Our growth led us to a new building. We’ve also grown younger. When I started my ministry here in 2003, not only was I young, I was younger than every single member of this church. One of the ways we’ve changed is that as I’ve grown older, the congregation has gotten younger. We have a lot of members in their thirties and even quite a few in their twenties. This actually will require your attention as a church, because each generation approaches religion differently. This growth was noticed by our denomination and I became something of a growth wunderkind, getting invited to denominational growth summits and being tapped to edit a book about growth.

Looking back on my ministry with you, one of the things I am most proud of is attempting to bring about the type of organizational change that growing churches need. My biggest regret was underestimating how hard this is, and not pushing harder than I did or more wisely than I did or more strategically than I did to make these organizational changes a success. Trying to do church with more than 300 members is fundamentally different than trying to do church with fewer than 200. Different systems and structures are required for a church to flourish as it grows larger.

In my second and third year of my ministry here I noticed an interesting dynamic. We were adding lots and lots of new members, but very few of them were getting involved in the work of committees. In fact, as we added more members fewer members served on committees. Back in those days, we had about 20 committees and each board member was assigned to be a liaison to two or more committees. Each board meeting, the members of the board would go through a list of the different committees and each liaison would offer a summary of what each committee was doing. I noticed something interesting. For three years a liaison was assigned to the “Denominational Affairs” committee, even though there was no such committee. No chair. No members. No meetings. No projects. No activities. But it wasn’t just the Denominational Affairs committee. Other committees didn’t really exist either, or had a chair but no members, or had members but didn’t meet, or met but never did anything, or really consisted of one person who had staked out his or her own territory. By the end of my third year, though this church claimed to have twenty committees, only two or three met regularly and performed significant work. And, I also noticed that all the really interesting programs and activities and events happened elsewhere in the life of the church, not through its committees.

I had a decision to make. The board and I could bust our asses trying to populate committees and get them functioning. Or we could take a proverbial walk in the woods and think about what was going on here. I searched far and wide for insight into what was going on with our church’s structure. I found the deepest and clearest insight in the writings of Thomas Bandy, a leading expert on church systems. The board and I read his book, Kicking Habits.

Bandy says that thriving churches are characterized by having a clarity of vision, being radically permission-giving, taking risks, and being outwardly focused. Members of thriving churches are changed, gifted, called, equipped, and sent into the world. Bandy says that declining churches are characterized by institutional control and the inwardly-focused maintenance of the status quo. Members are enrolled, informed, nominated, supervised, and kept.

Thriving churches feel like a game of racquetball. [Bandy actually uses the sport of Jai alai for this metaphor.] They are fast-paced, kinetic, and there is a continuity of motion even as the ball might move at unexpected angles. Declining churches feel like a game of croquet. To accomplish anything you must jump through a complicated set of hoops, in the right order, and other players can decide to gang up on you and knock you out of the game. It is a game marked by dullness, tedium, and frustration. Earnest efforts are easily thwarted by whoever decides to play gatekeeper.

Bandy describes a church he encountered where someone proposed a great new idea. 115 members of the church spent a combined 275 hours of people’s time over ten weeks in order to say no to the idea. In a thriving church, new ideas and new ministries sometimes fail. In fact, they often fail but there is no shame in this. It is better to be the church that tries and fails than the church that bothered not to even try because that person had not jumped through all the hoops. Anyways, when I go back and read Kicking Habits by Thomas Bandy and other books he’s written and co-written, I am re-convinced that he is fundamentally right about the types of organizational systems that allow churches to thrive. I would commend him to you.

What I failed to realize as your minister is how challenging it is to transform an organizational system. The process is never smooth or linear or easy. It is not as simple as making a clear appeal to reason or rational thinking.

It has been said about Policy Governance, the system of church governance that is now pretty much standard for UU churches with more than 250 members, “It takes five years to implement, or you can try to do it faster and take ten years.”

My biggest regret as your minister is not pursuing the organizational systems recommended by people like Thomas Bandy with greater commitment, resilience, and courage, and yes, it must be said, greater diplomacy and greater communication as well.

In the parlance of Unitarian Universalism, in the last decade we’ve grown to become a “mid-sized II” congregation, whatever that means. In the grand scheme of things, at the macro level, in the midst of the universe’s vast reaches of time and space, we are small, miniscule in fact.

Life is too short for croquet. I’m not sure what to make out of Einstein’s quote about God not playing dice with the universe, but I don’t think God calls us to play croquet. Or, in the words of this congregation’s search committee more than a decade ago, “The worst mistake that our new minister could make would be to not show enthusiasm and energy in his or her approach to our church, the congregation and his or her position. We are eager for energy and excitement.”

I am grateful to have served this congregation full of fine, fine people. I’ve treasured my ministry with you. And, I will remember with deep fondness and affection those things that are worth treasuring in the finite time we’ve had.

I will remember meals we’ve shared and the bustle and boisterousness of coffee hour.

I will recall weddings performed, babies dedicated, and the dead memorialized.

I will smilingly recall laughter and play, generosity and forgiveness.

I will treasure moments of tender silence, prayers shared, music that moved us towards the depths, and the insights of poetry.

I’m proud of our accomplishments during the course of my ministry with you.


Monday, May 26, 2014

Homily: "After Coming of Age" (Delivered 5-18-14)

This morning’s announcement from about the upcoming church canoe trip led me to recall a true story from having led a Coming of Age program many years ago. The first time I led a Coming of Age program was for a church in Boston and one of the activities we did that year was to take a canoe trip on the Concord River. The Concord River is probably the calmest, most peaceful river ever. It flows sleepily through the small town suburbs of Boston. Its banks lead to the backyards of expensive homes. We launched the canoes, the youth in one canoe, the adult advisors in the other. This wasn’t the best idea. Within five minutes the youth had managed to capsize their vessel. The Concord River may be tranquil and peaceful, but in April it is very cold. We stood on the banks, the adults dry, the youth dripping wet as their teeth chattered and their lips turned blue. The youth decided on a course of action.

They walked across a well-manicured lawn and rang the doorbell of an expensive home. When the owner opened the door, the youth spoke: “We fell into the river. We’re wet. We’re cold. We’re Unitarian Universalists. Please help us.” For the next hour the youth stood in the man’s driveway, wrapped in towels, while their wet clothes spun in the dryer.

The way a Coming of Age homily works is that I pretend like I am speaking to just the Coming of Age students, when, in reality, I’m speaking to everyone in the room. What I’d like to tell you this morning is that the process of Coming of Age, the process of growth, will introduce you to three temptations, will put before you three tests. However, your journey of growth will stagnate if you give in to any of the three temptations.

The first temptation is independence. If you give in to the temptation of independence you will find yourself in a state of isolation. The second temptation is narcissism. If you give into the temptation of narcissism you will find yourself in a state of disconnection. And, finally, there is the temptation of cynicism, which leads to a state of alienation.

Independence, first. Like the rite of Confirmation in Catholicism, like the Bar and Bat Mitzvah in Judaism, like adolescent rites of passage in native cultures all around the world, Coming of Age is in some ways a passage into religious adulthood. It occurs at the same time in life as you begin to enjoy increased freedom in life, although the youth may look at me and say, “Thom, that increased freedom can’t come fast enough.” It is tempting, though, to believe that you are more independent than you actually are. The truth is found in the story of the Coming of Age canoe trip. When they fell in the river, they had a choice: freeze and suffer by themselves, independently, or admit their own radical dependence and ask for help. It can be hard to ask for help. It can be hard to admit that you need help. The idea of radical independence can be tempting, can be seductive, but the truth is that we need one another.

Another temptation you’ll face is the temptation of narcissism, the temptation to become focused on, fascinated with yourself. We live in a narcissistic age, an age of endless self-fascination. We live in the age of the selfie. You know what a selfie is, right? Taking a picture of yourself with your phone. In an editorial written recently by Galen Guengerich, it is claimed that the first time the world “selfie” was used was about a decade ago when a young, intoxicated Australian managed to fall down a flight of stairs. He busted his lip on one of the steps so hard that one of his teeth managed to pierce through his lower lip. The young man decided he should share this with his friends, took out his phone, snapped a picture of himself, and sent the photo to his friends, writing, “Sorry about the focus. It was a selfie.” Early research that has been done on the selfie phenomena has shown that increased sharing of selfies leads to decreased feelings of connection and closeness.

We live in the age of the cell phone camera selfie, but also in the age of the spiritual selfie where there is a desire to shamelessly share our spiritual ideas in a narcissistic way. Every so often, I receive in the mail a bubble wrapped copy of a self-published book by some stranger who has written his own grand theory of religion or his own spiritual manifesto. (It is always men who do this, interestingly enough.) The author assumes that I’m interested in what they have to say. Inevitably, the folks who write these manifestos always seem profoundly disconnected and distant.

We are called to something greater than being religiously fascinated with ourselves, than being spiritually narcissistic. We’re called to name what we long for most deeply, what we love more than love, what we hold to be most precious, what keeps us up at night.

Finally, a third temptation that comes to us is the temptation of cynicism, criticism, and cooler-than-thou detachment. You’ve come of age in a religious tradition that prides itself on asking questions and challenging conventional wisdom. There is a shadow side to this.

There is an old UU joke that goes like this. There is a priest walking down the street who sees the church is on fire. He runs in, grabs the communion set, and runs out. The church burns down, but he gives thanks that the communion set could be spared. There is a rabbi walking down the street who sees the synagogue is on fire. He runs in, grabs the Sefer Torah, the scrolls on which are written the five books of Moses. The synagogue burns down but the rabbi gives thanks that Torah was spared from the fire. A Unitarian Universalist minister is walking down the street and sees that the UU church is on fire. She runs in and grabs the coffee maker.

I think this joke is about being cooler-than-thou, about believing that nothing is sacred. Religious cynicism isn’t new. In the 1700s Friedrich Schleiermacher published his speeches to the cultured despisers of religion, challenging those who dismissed religion and regarded it with a distant critical stance.

We live in a culture of criticism, of tearing down people who take risks, of finding fault, pointing out flaws, taking a superior, crossed-arm, posture. Criticism, as it turns out, creates nothing, achieves nothing, accomplishes nothing. It is a posturing. We need to find ways to encourage risk-taking, encourage leadership, encourage experimentation. We need to appreciate and trust. Criticism isolates ourselves from others.

You will be tempted to think of yourselves as independent, when the truth is that you will always, always depend on others.

You will be tempted to be self-focused, narcissistic, when spirituality asks us to focus on what we love and care about and long for most deeply.

You will be tempted to be detached and coolly critical, when spirituality calls us into a place of deep appreciation.


The challenge has just begun. 

I wish you way more than luck.*


* This is how David Foster Wallace ended his famous commencement speech at Kenyon College. I decided to use his phrase because his literary projects were concerned with irony and narcissism.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Sermon: "Faith for Religious Liberals" (Delivered 3-30-14)


Between services several people stopped me and told me that the beginning of my sermon covered the same material as the most recent episode of Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’ve not been watching this show. So what can I say? Great minds think alike?

One cold, clear winter’s night, when I was eight years old, my dad got us bundled up in our coats and hats and gloves. We went outside into the dark, walked out to the middle of a frozen lake and looked towards the southern horizon. It was the winter of 1986 and Halley’s Comet was visible in the sky. My memory of seeing Halley’s comet is imperfect. My father was a physics teacher and the household expert on all things scientific. He taught us that Halley’s comet would come back in another 75 years. I was in awe of the immense distances it would travel in that time, but even more in awe by trying to imagine living long enough to possibly see it again.

When a comet appeared in 1680 in the night sky over Boston, the city’s leading minister regarded the comet with a different sort of awe. The Puritan preacher, Increase Mather, offered a sermon about the comet entitled “Heaven’s Alarm to the World.” The sermon described this comet as “a sign of God’s displeasure and a herald of some mysterious calamity destined to fall upon the Boston populace.” The next time the comet came around, in 1759, its arrival came as predicted by British astronomer Edmond Halley and was named for him. By this time, a new view of the universe was becoming dominant, a worldview that saw comets in the sky not as acts of God meant to convey a message from the divine, but as a predictable phenomenon occurring within a predictably ordered universe. Increase Mather’s sermon that the comet is a message from God stopped making sense when astronomers discovered that they could accurately predict when comets will pass by in the future.

The title of this morning’s sermon is “Faith for Religious Liberals.” This morning I’m interested in asking if and whether the word “faith” is still relevant for us as members of a liberal religion. And, if so, what do we actually mean when we use the word faith?

The story I just told about Increase Mather and Halley’s Comet implies something about the reasons it may be tempting to reject the idea of faith. It implies that faith is synonymous with a lack of understanding. At worst, faith is superstition. At best, it is a pre-modern understanding of the world. In any event, faith is something that scientific understanding will eventually prove incorrect and unsophisticated.

(When I use the term religious liberals, I am speaking to a particular aspect of religious liberalism. I mean that we, as religious liberals, are open to new wisdom, new insight, and new understanding. New learning is not threatening to us; we freely embrace the findings of science and the discoveries of scholarship. As religious liberals we embrace Galileo and Copernicus, Edmond Halley and Charles Darwin, rather than distrust them, fear them, or feel threatened by them.)

Imagine that you get sick or suffer an injury. And you have a choice of where to go. You can go to a clinic with a sign outside that says, “Faith Healing.” Or you can go to a clinic with a sign outside that says, “Scientific Healing.” As religious liberals, we’re all going the clinic that advertises scientific healing, right? Because what they’ll do is diagnose the issue with a test or X-Ray or scan and then they’ll treatment based on what the most modern scientific evidence has proven to be most effective. As religious liberals, we’re all taking the scientific healing route, right? If we choose to define faith as lack of understanding, then faith is a term that we would certainly not want to claim. But, are there other ways of using the word “faith” that we might positively claim?

As I was first preparing for this sermon a couple of weeks ago, I kind of did a mental scan of the way the word “faith’ is used. The term “faith,” unfortunately, is often used imprecisely. The word faith is often used as a shorthand or substitute for religion. An interfaith gathering is the same thing as an interreligious gathering. A person of faith is the same thing as a religious person. It is just that a lot of people tend to respond more positively to the word faith than they do to the word religion. Though they are often conflated, they don’t mean the same thing.

Faith is also used interchangeably with the word belief. An article of faith or a confession of faith means pretty much the same thing as a statement of belief.

In a piece he wrote for the UU World magazine last summer, Unitarian Universalist President Peter Morales tried to untangle the words religion, belief, and faith. Morales wrote,

We need to think about faith, religion, and spirituality in a new way. When I grew up I was taught that religion was about what we believed. What made my denomination different (and correct, of course) was our sound doctrine. We were right. This made religion too much about being right, about us and them. Too much attention then goes into defending our beliefs.

I am now convinced that “belief,” in the way we usually use the word, is actually the enemy of faith, religion, and spirituality. Let me say that again: belief is the enemy of faith. When we dwell on beliefs we ask all the wrong questions. My faith is much more about what I love than about what I think.

Understanding the etymology of the word “faith” may help us to come to a different way of thinking about the word. Indeed, it may even allow us to reclaim the word in a way that makes sense to us.

If you visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and you’ll encounter a number of European paintings depicting harrowing scenes from the Christian religion. One time when I was there my friend pointed out something about these paintings. A number of them had dogs in them. The artist had painted a dog right into the scene. As it turns out, the dogs had theological significance. Fido, my friend said. It is the word for faith, for faithfulness, for fidelity.

That’s how I remember that faith differs from belief. Dogs are faithful. Dogs are loyal, loving, devoted. Dogs aren’t belief-full. Dogs don’t have beliefs, as far as I can tell. But there is clearly a faithfulness to them. “My faith is much more about what I love than about what I think,” is how Peter Morales puts it.

In her book The Gift of Imperfection, Brené Brown offers a definition of faith. She writes, “Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.” At first glance, this definition of faith is unsatisfying. Faith is equated with a lack of understanding, which is problematic. But then Brené Brown offers a reflection that suggests another level to her understanding of faith. She writes,

I’ve come to realize that faith and reason are not natural enemies. It’s our human need for certainty and our need to ‘be right’ that have pitted faith and reason against each other in an almost reckless way… We love closure, resolution and clarity, while thinking that we are people of “faith”! How strange that the very word “faith” has come to mean its exact opposite… Faith is essential when we decide to live and love with our whole hearts in a world where most of us want assurances before we risk being vulnerable and getting hurt.

Many of the things most worth doing in our lives are done without any assurance, without any certainty, that things will turn out well. It is like the teenager trying to summon up the courage to ask someone out on a date for the first time. But he may say no. But she may say no. There is a leap of faith involved.

When I do weddings, there is faith involved. A statistician is not called for. Imagine if a wedding ceremony included an actuarial table, an assessment based on demographics, family history, and overall societal rates of separation and divorce. What’s called for is faith. Faith, not in the sense of prediction, but faith in the sense of loyalty, devotion, and love.

Brené Brown reflects, “At first I thought that faith meant ‘there’s a reason for everything.’ I personally struggled with that because I’m not comfortable with using God or faith… to explain [things.] It actually feels like substituting certainty for faith when people say, ‘There’s a reason for everything.’”

Out on the ice. Winter. 1986. I’m 8 years old. The comet will come back in 75 years. The old view of faith sees faith as a matter of explanation or prediction. The new view of faith – faith for religious liberals – sees faith as an attitude about how to live in the world in the most loyal, loving, and devoted way possible. There are all sorts of certainties in this world, including that Halley’s Comet will come back around every 75 years or so. But much of life requires moving forward without certainty. Faith doesn’t offer an explanation for or an explanation concerning celestial events. Faith is an attitude for approaching the time you’re given once you come in off the ice.

Faith is actually about an attitude of trust, loyalty, and love with which we meet each other and the world.


Monday, March 03, 2014

Sermon: "Why Membership Matters" (Delivered 3-2-14)

Opening Words by Peter Raible

We build on foundations we did not lay
We warm ourselves by fires we did not light
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant
We drink from wells we did not dig
We profit from persons we did not know

This is as it should be.
Together we are more than any one person could be.
Together we can build across the generations.
Together we can renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold.
Together we can heed the call to a ministry of care and justice.

We are ever bound in community.
May it always be so.


Reading “On Going to Church” by A. Powell Davies

Let me tell you why I come to church.

I come to church—and would whether I was a preacher or not—because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them. It is not enough that I should think about the world and its problems at the level of a newspaper report or a magazine discussion. It could too soon become too low a level. I must have my conscience sharpened—sharpened until it goads me to the most thorough and responsible thinking of which I am capable. I must feel again the love I owe my fellow men (and women). I must not only hear about it but feel it. In church, I do.

I need to be reminded that there are things I must do in the world—unselfish things, things undertaken at the level of idealism. Workaday enthusiasms are not enough. They wear out too soon. I want to experience human nature at its best—and be reminded of its highest possibilities, and this happens to me in church. It may seem as though the same things could be found in solitude, but it does not easily happen so.

In a congregation we share each other’s spiritual needs and reinforce each other. In some ways, the soul is never lonelier than in a church service. That is certainly true of a pulpit, for a pulpit is the most intimately lonely place in the world—yet it is a loneliness that has strength in it. Perhaps this is because the innermost solitude of the human heart is in some paradoxical way a thing that can be shared—that must be shared—if the spirit of God is to find a full entrance into it.

We meet each other as friends and neighbors anywhere and everywhere, but we seldom do so in the consciousness of our souls’ deepest yearnings. But in church we do—in a way that protects us from all that is intrusive, yet leaves us knowing that we all have the same yearning, the same spiritual loneliness, the same need of assurance and faith and hope. We are brought together at the highest level possible. We are not merely an audience, we are a congregation.

I doubt whether I could stand the thought of the cruelty and misery of the present world unless I could know, through an experience that renewed itself over and over again, that at the heart of life there is assurance, that I can hold an ultimate belief that all is well. And this happens in church.

Life must have its sacred moments and its holy places. The soul will always seek its nurture. For religious experience—which is life at its most intense, life at its best—is something we cannot do without.


Sermon
Welcome to March in Kansas and welcome to the more than 60 of you who braved the frigid cold and driving snow to be with us here in worship this morning. Back when I first began my ministry here, I remember choosing a hymn for worship in early December. The hymn’s words contained descriptions of wintery frost and chill. We sang that hymn that Sunday despite the fact that it was 70 degrees outside and some members had worn short sleeves to church. That spring I selected a hymn with words about spring’s flowers. We sang that hymn during a blizzard.

The section in our hymnal that deals with seasons has a distinctive New England, or at least northern, bias. Here in Kansas we can’t sing about the cool evenings of summer, as one hymn puts it. I am friends with the UU minister serving our congregation in Key West – someone has to do it! – and he’s commented to me about how the hymnal describes a cycle of nature that does not resemble the one in which he lives.

The point I’m making here is one about the cycles of life. We all go through cycles in our lives, just not all in the same way, or at the same time. As a community we come together, some of us warmed by life’s sunshine, some of us in the green time of new beginnings, some of us chilled and cold, some of us wearied by darkening clouds. This idea relates to what I plan to say about membership.

Last Sunday I preached the first part of a two part sermon series on membership. Last week I asked the question of what membership means. I began the sermon last Sunday with a story about the meaning of membership in the churches of the early ancestors of the Unitarians. They had rigorous rules about membership but then later relaxed those rules a bit when people found them too rigorous. Last Sunday I mentioned that in our Exploring Membership classes we talk about the four Ps of membership: Presence, Participation, Pledging, and Passing It On. And then I casually mentioned that we have never had a conversation as a church about what the expectations for membership ought to be, that the four Ps are more suggestions than requirements. I ended last week’s message with a dual invitation. The first invitation was to write to me and tell me what you think is fair to expect from members. What does membership mean to you? What do you think it ought to mean? Later this morning I am going to share what some of our members wrote. The second invitation I extended in my sermon last week was an invitation to volunteer to work with me on some membership related projects. Last Sunday, seven of the members of this church volunteered to help me out with membership. Right now they are making calls to current members who may not have had the highest levels of presence and participation lately. I am still looking for at least a dozen additional volunteers to help with some membership projects related to Passing It On.  This work includes developing materials and initiatives that will help promote the church in the wider community and help our members to better be able to Pass It On. Contact me if you are interested.

This morning the title of the sermon is “Why Membership Matters.” The title of the sermon assumes that membership does matter. Actually, that is an assumption. If you were to go around and ask a bunch of thought leaders and outside-the-box thinkers and paradigm shifters within Unitarian Universalism – or if you were to ask people who spend a lot of time thinking about the contemporary religious landscape of America and the future of religious institutions – a lot of them would tell you that membership is not as important. Here is what they might say:

They might say that membership is a concept that is passé. They might say it is a boring institutional word, like committee or meeting, that harkens back to ways of civic engagement that are in decline in today’s world. They might say that contemporary organizations, including churches, need to rethink how they do things in order to remain relevant.

Critics of membership might point out that the idea of membership has been harmed by consumerism. Membership was once a lofty idea, but now membership is too often confused with our identities as consumers. Membership in a church should not be confused with membership at Costco or Sam’s Club, membership at the fitness center or the country club, or membership in the frequent shopper rewards club at your favorite shopping establishment.

Those who say that membership doesn’t matter might point out that for leaders of the church, membership can become an idol, a false God that we’re tempted to worship. You hear this at denominational meetings when someone asks, almost luridly, “How many members does your church have? What’s your membership?” Membership too often becomes a number that people tend to focus on; it is how we calculate the amount in dues we pay to the Unitarian Universalist Association. It is the number that’s used to rank and categorize and evaluate churches. Focusing on membership numbers can be an idolatry, taking our attention away from other important questions: What difference is your church making in the wider community? Whose lives are being touched by the church? How are lives being changed by the church?

I think these cautionary considerations are important, but I still think that membership is important. I believe that membership matters. I want to talk with you about why I think it does. But first, before I do that, I want to share with you some of the responses I received to the questions I posed last week about the meaning of membership.

Several members wrote to share with me their ideas related to growing membership within our church. Several people wrote about the importance of warmly welcoming newer people, of members intentionally taking time to step away from their own groups of close friends and engage in a warm and hospitable way with visitors and newer members. Others wrote to me and talked about the necessity of connecting people to groups within the church. It is simply imperative, they wrote, for the leaders of groups to be devoted to reaching out, inviting people, and promoting their programs in attractive and welcoming way possible. I received numerous ideas about membership related programs and activities.

At least three different members wrote to express their uneasiness about the idea of mandating a certain level of participation. One person put it this way,

“I understand how vast the gulf can be between different people's levels of ability, and how it depends on a multitude of physical, mental, and circumstantial factors. We cannot meaningfully evaluate whether someone else is participating to the best of their ability, since we will never fully understand what they are going through. All we can do is encourage one another. We can also help fellow members with the things they are struggling with in ways that will enhance their ability to participate meaningfully in the life of the church.”

Another member wrote to me about health issues related to aging as a limitation to presence and participation. A third member wrote to me about having a very demanding career that includes extensive travel. She’s at a place, right now, where church involvement is simply a lower priority.

But here’s the thing, each of these members who took the time to write me described their current levels of involvement as fluid rather than fixed. They may not be highly active now, but there was a time in the past or there will be a time in the future, when they will be. Our lives have cycles, they said. A fourth member put it like this,

“One of the issues that we think could be acknowledged is that membership is a long-term commitment. Sometimes life allows for much participation and involvement, and at other times, life demands our time and efforts be given to other aspects of life, such as job, family, and other commitments. So taking a cross-sectional look can be misleading rather than taking a longitudinal look at peoples' involvement/participation in church.”

Levels of participation wax and wane, ebb and flow. Which is only natural and healthy.

Our lives are like this. Not only do our lives have cycles with high points and low points, but religious life, faith life, and church life contain these cycles as well. Just as our own lives have their cycles – cycles of youth and aging, cycles of work and rest, cycles of journeying and settling down, cycles of narrow focus and broad exploration – so too do our spiritual lives have cycles. The honest, authentic, engaged spiritual life has moments of gratitude, wonder, and joy as well as moments of pain, anguish, and discomfort. And, more than that, the serious spiritual life will challenge us, will force us to ask uncomfortable questions, will sometimes require tough and difficult things from us. The spiritual life has peak experiences, valley experiences, and plateau experiences. Sometimes, our faith brings us equilibrium and sometimes our spiritual lives shake us up.

It is just as A. Powell Davies writes, “I come to church… because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them… I must have my conscience sharpened—sharpened until it goads me to the most thorough and responsible thinking of which I am capable. I need to be reminded that there are things I must do in the world—unselfish things, things undertaken at the level of idealism.”

And all of this, all of this, implies something to me about why membership matters so much. Membership matters not because of the numbers we report the Unitarian Universalist Association. Membership matters not for trying to determine who gets a vote at a congregational meeting. Membership matters as an affirmation of the cycles of our lives and the cycles of our spiritual lives.

The cycles of our lives mean that there will be times of diving in and times of pulling back, times of greater and lesser involvement. We are all at different places in the cycles of our lives. We’re grateful for our new babies, our high school youth, our young families, our empty nesters, our retirees, and our seniors. A church made up of only one group at one place on life’s spectrum would not a church make. Being a church means that we will drink from wells we did not dig and sit in the shade of trees we did not plant. Membership matters because it really does take all of us to do this well.

***

This idea of staying connected to a church across our life cycle reminds me of an email I received earlier this week. Earlier this week I received a questionnaire from the college I attended. The college was engaging in strategic planning work and was sending a survey to all alumni. There were a bunch of questions, but one question caught my attention. The question was about alumni giving and asked, basically, why I gave to the school as an alum. I’ve given something every single year since graduating. I’ve given even as a broke graduate student. I’ve given even when I was still paying off the student loans I had incurred. I give generously now even though the cycle of my life is very, very far away from anything related to college life.

The question about why I give as an alum was multiple choice and offered a multitude of choices: Sheer gratitude from my few years there so many years ago, belief in the mission and values of the college, a desire to pay it forward by helping others to have as good of an experience (or an even better experience) than I had, a desire to contribute to financial aid to help to make it more affordable for someone else to attend.

I’ve often thought Unitarian Universalist churches should ask for the generosity of its current active members, but also its historical members, its alumni. Did Our Whole Lives make a difference in your life as an eighth grader? Were you held during your time of loss? Did you find community when you were lonely? Were you welcomed and accepted? Were you inspired? Were you changed?

Are you grateful for the impact the church has made in your life?
Do you believe in the church’s mission?
Do you want others to have as good of an experience (or an even better experience) than you had?
Do you want to make it possible for others to be touched?

It is true that our lives have cycles. This obvious and good and healthy. And, membership, I would say, is what keeps us connected through these cycles. Membership is for now and for the future when our lives cycle back, for when others come in the trajectory of their living.