Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Charge to the Congregation

[On Sunday, Nov. 27, I traveled to Cedar Falls, Iowa to deliver the "Charge to the Congregation" at the Installation service of my friend and colleague, Eva Cameron, as she was installed as the new minister of the UU Society of Blackhawk County. Word is a podcast will be up soon, and I'll post it here when it is.]

Before I commence my charge to you, I want to praise you for doing something more important than anything I will say to you in these next few minutes. I want to praise you for the making the splendid decision that you have made in calling Eva as your minister. If you have not yet discovered, you will soon learn – as those of us who know her well know well – that Eva is a fiercely compassionate and fiercely intelligent human being. Among colleagues she is deeply respected. In ministry, Eva models a profound understanding of shared ministry that brings out the best of those around her. In life, Eva models an openness and curiosity. She connects easily with people from all walks of life; if you spend any amount of time around her, your life cannot help but become more connected, your soul expanded.

You have called a fine, fine minister, but I’m going to charge you to do even more. I’m going to charge you to do even more because… well, because I can. That’s the great thing about these “Charges to the Congregation”: I get to tell you what to do and with complete immunity. All of the power and none of the responsibility!

I am a life-long Unitarian Universalist, having grown up in the historic First Parish in Wayland, Massachusetts, which has gathered for worship since 1640, and as a Unitarian congregation for the last 200 or so years. Those of us who grow up Unitarian Universalist have, perhaps, a special sense for what this faith means. It is a tradition that we know from the cradle, perhaps from the womb.

Standing before you today, I can say to you that growing up as a Unitarian Universalist saved my life. When I say that to you, I’m not sure that I’m talking about being saved in a physical sense, in the sense of pulse or no pulse. And when I say that it saved my life, I’m not sure that I’m talking about being saved in a metaphysical sense either, in the sense of heaven and hell. When I say that it saved my life, I’m saying it more metaphorically. It saved my soul by teaching me powerful lessons of mercy, acceptance, understanding, hope, and justice. It taught me a way of being religious that was life-affirming instead of life-dismissing. Were it not for having grown up in this church, I am certain my life would be something much, much less than what it is.

My first charge to you is a challenging one: Be about the work of being a context in which lives are transformed, in which lives are saved. What you do here as a church matters. It matters in so many ways, known and unknowable. It matters to the person who comes in and sits in the back, who has decided to give church – or life – one last shot. It matters to the family blessed by the work this religious community does in the wider community. It matters to the person who didn’t know that a religious community could be like this, could possibly embrace him or her. It matters to the youth who grows up not scared or scarred by doctrine, and not condescending to faith either, but in the possession of a life-opening religious view.

This life-saving work is what makes you different from a country club, or a community center, or a debating society, or a half-way house for the orphans of organized religion. It is this transformation of life that makes you a faith community. Be about this work.

My second charge to you is this: Living out a life of faith will not make your life easier. It will demand more from you than you expect. My church outside of Kansas City is located on a road with many other houses of worship. As you drive West, the churches seem to get bigger and bigger. One day, prior to a meeting with a leader in my church, I drove down this road picking up stewardship literature for each church. As you move West, the asking becomes more bold and more demanding. I decided to show these pamphlets to the leader from my congregation, and their response was one of horror, “Oh, we couldn’t possibly ask like that, we don’t have Hell.” And yet, we would never say that we could not work passionately for justice because we don’t have hell. And, we would never say that we can’t help people to live ethically informed lives because we don’t have Hell. Our faith ought to demand more of us, ask more from us.

If the life of Gandhi, or Jesus, or Martin Luther King, or Theodore Parker showed us anything, it is that the authentic life of faith will require more from you than you expect. It makes your life better, not easier. The opportunity that Unitarian Universalism provides you with to build your own theology, to figure out what you believe, to debate theology – these opportunities are challenges, not conveniences. They are the first step of a long and difficult journey, not a cozy destination unto themselves. I charge you to be a church of high expectations, and high standards to live up to.

My final charge to you is to be a beacon rather than a bunker. A bunker faith is separate from the world; it is a place where you go to get away, to hunker down, to survive, to remove yourself from the winds that are a-blowing. A beacon faith, sticks out in the world. It signals where it is and what it stands for. People look to it. It shines out on the harsh and frightening world. My final charge to you is to be a beacon, not a bunker.

Let this community know who you are, what you stand for, where your convictions lie. Tell them what you are all about and tell them that you wan them to be a part of what you are all about. Invite your friends, your neighbors, your dentist, your dog-groomer to come on Sunday morning. Go out and drive around and tell Sunday morning joggers that they look tired and that you would be happy to give them a ride to the UU society of Black Hawk County. Demonstrate your presence through works of direct service and social action.

These are my charges: Be a context in which lives are saved. Live a life of faith in which more is expected from you. Be a beacon, not a bunker.

As I thought about traveling up here to charge you as your congregation begins this new relationship with your new minister, I wanted to find out a bit about you. So, I studied up on you, and I was intrigued (and maybe even a bit perplexed) to discover the symbol of the Golden Rectangle (or Golden Proportion, or Golden Ratio) that you display prominently all around the church. I'm not sure I completely understand it, but it is interesting symbolism. Now, I’m no math scholar, but I did a little research and found the equation for the Golden Ratio.

φ = a/b = (a+b)/a

So, I thought I might leave you with some equations to consider. Don’t worry, you don’t have to know math. In fact, not knowing math may place you at a distinct advantage. I charge you to remember the Unitarian golden ratio, the equation for making coffee:

Coffee = 1 tbsp. coffee grounds / 6 oz. water

I happen to believe this equation works better with pie.

1 tbsp. coffee grounds / 6 oz. water + π

I considered trying to suggest a formula for Unitarian Universalism…

U² = Σ [7(p+p) + 1819 + (√exp.)t(m+w)] / 25

… but thought better of it! (Don't ask...)

However, one equation that is important to share is this one:

f C = 10% - t%

You will notice that this equation shows that complaining is negatively correlated to tithing. As tithing approaches 10%, complaining approaches zero. Even if you don’t believe this equation, I dare you to try to prove it false.

My final equation, that I leave you with is one that I don’t know how to write, for it is seemingly non-mathematical, illogical, and irrational. It is simply this, that somehow, somehow, when a fine congregation and a fine minister come together, they make each other more than what they already are. Together they are greater than the sum of their parts.

Blessings to you as a congregation. Blessings to this new ministry. Blessings to your shared ministry, together.