Friday, April 16, 2010

This I Believe... (Part III: My Religious Autobiography & Drawing My Faith Journey)

Part III: My Religious Autobiography

Thus far, I’ve shared an autobiography of my academic training in religious thought. But, I also want to give you an account of my autobiography in terms of religious experience. I grew up in the small town of Wayland, Massachusetts, 20 miles West of Boston, the son of a formerly-Methodist father and a formerly-Catholic mother who were looking for a liberal religious home to raise their children. They found it at “The Church,” as it was known in my hometown. The big, white, colonial New England meetinghouse on the town green in the center of town. First Parish in Wayland dates back to 1640. It became Unitarian in 1825. It currently serves around 350 adults and more than 200 children. My childhood minister was Ken Sawyer, who has served as First Parish’s minister since 1974. His 36 year tenure serving the same congregation is currently the longest streak in Unitarian Universalism, though in the Boston area long tenures are the norm. At the first church I served as a student minister, running the youth group of First Church in Boston (literally, the First Church in Boston, founded in 1630) their minister, Rhys Williams, had just retired after a 40 year run. That’s nothing compared to that congregation’s proto-Unitarian minister who served them during the 1700s, Charles Chauncy, who served that congregation from 1727 to 1787, 60 consecutive years.

My childhood minister, Ken Sawyer, grew up as a Unitarian in New Jersey, studied English literature at Amherst, and went to seminary at Harvard Divinity School during the Vietnam War. I grew up attending church in an austere, high-ceilinged meetinghouse, with all surfaces painted completely white. We sat in wood pews and the minister preached from an elevated pulpit that towered over the parishioners below. Ken Sawyer’s theological leanings were existentialist and his favorite person to quote from the pulpit was Albert Camus.

I do want to make this point. If you are a Unitarian Universalist in Kansas City, you can attend All Souls with slightly more than 500 members, Shawnee Mission UU Church with slightly less than 300 members, or the GAIA community with about 35 members. But, say you lived in Wayland and say you were willing to drive no more than 25 miles to church. You would have your choice of 75 different Unitarian Universalist congregations. Within just a 10 mile radius of the home where I grew up you find 17 different UU congregations with around 5,000 total members among them including the 800 member church in Concord, which is easy walking distance from Emerson’s home, Louisa May Alcott’s home, the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the Concord battleground where the shot heard round the world was fired, and, if you’ve got good walking shoes, Walden Pond. Some of those congregations conduct worship services that are virtually indistinguishable from ours. Others have conducted worship in the same way for centuries and wouldn’t dream of allowing a new fangled worship innovation like a flaming chalice inside their sanctuary. Most of the churches use the grey “Singing the Living Tradition” hymnal. Others use the dark blue “Hymns for the Celebration of Life” hymnal from the 1960s. Still others use the red “Hymns of the Spirit” Unitarian hymnal from the 1930s.

Three miles from Wayland center you find First Parish in Weston, a 600-member Christian UU Church. There they say the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday and repeat a covenant that reads, "In the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus Christ, we join for the worship of God and the service of Humankind." What’s more, two of those 17 congregations are multi-denominational. The First Parish in Lincoln, five miles from where I grew up, is affiliated with both the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. First Parish in Lincoln pays dues to both denominations. From their website,
The Sunday service is ecumenical in spirit, drawing from many faiths and spiritual sources. Communion is offered four times a year to anyone who chooses to partake (including children); we have baptisms or the Unitarian dedication of children; we recite the Lord’s Prayer or one of many other favorite unison prayers in our Sunday services. The First Parish also celebrates the Winter Solstice, as well as the traditional Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas.
Similarly, members of the Eliot Church of South Natick, five miles in the other direction from where I grew up, get to choose whether they wish to consider themselves UU or UCC. And, in smaller towns in Western Massachusetts, it is not uncommon to find a church whose members consider themselves to be UU or UCC or American Baptist or Congregationalist.

But, I grew up in the church in Wayland, and my childhood religious instruction included being slipped many cough drops on those Sundays when children were in church for a longer period of time. Seriously, it included the earlier versions of many of the same classes the children in our church enjoy. We learned about Moses and Noah and Jesus and about Buddha and Gandhi and the Hindu deities. We went on a pinecone hunt and planted beans. We made our own teepees and learned about Native American traditions. We did the Church across the Street program, an earlier version of the Neighboring Faiths curriculum that we teach here. We did AYS, or About Your Sexuality, which our church now offers as OWL, or Our Whole Lives. I went through Coming of Age.

I was a steadfast and devoted member of our church’s youth group, which had four different leaders in four different years, and a fluctuating attendance ranging from one (me) to sixteen (though only half of those had parents who attended the church.) I was also a devoted and passionate attendee of Youth Conferences, gatherings of UU youth from different congregations with widely varying programming opportunities. And then, after youth conferences got banned, I was a part of the steering committee charged with reviving them. The reason they got banned? Well, let me tell you a story. In the early '90s I attended a youth conference at one of the UU churches in Worcester, Massachusetts. Over 100 youth were in attendance and we had interesting workshops, well-organized small group discussions, moving worship services each morning and evening, and an uproariously hilarious talent show. And, from 7:00 on Friday night to 7:00 on Sunday morning, a span of 36 hours, not one single adult – no minister, no Director of Religious Education, no youth advisor, no passerby – did so much as even set foot within the building. At the opening meeting at the beginning of the conference, 100 youth sat there and the youth committee that had organized the conference basically said, “Well, we forgot to tell any adults that we were having this conference.” We concluded, reasonably but wrongly, that that just meant that we had to be extra-responsible, to make sure nobody got hurt and nothing got broken, and that we needed to be on our best behavior at all times. Which was exactly what happened. Which was also the wrong decision.

Almost twenty years later, I look back with very mixed reactions. At those conferences I experienced transformational acceptance, affirmation, encouragement towards creativity, leadership development, emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy, and ecstatic states of reverence. It helped make me whole. And, yet, not everyone had the same experience. It is a miracle that nobody died, but there were casualties. There were casualties.

By contrast, my experience in my own local congregation had its higher points and its lower points, but it was always safely guided by responsible adults.

I think a person can romanticize those times too much. But they were deeply and powerfully transformative: personally, relationally, and spiritually. Earlier I spoke about my childhood minister, Ken Sawyer, but First Parish's second minister, Kimi Riegel, is probably the biggest reason I am a minister today. She used to tell us youth that the only magical power a minister had was the ability to come get us out of school if we had a reason that we needed to talk to her. I had to see if it was true, so I called her up and I had her come pick me up from math class one afternoon and we went to Caraway’s Bagels. I had nothing to talk about, really, so we sort of, kind of, got on the subject of ministry and I decided that ministry might be for me. I later met with her to learn how it is that one becomes a minister. I was told to go to college and get good grades, be very involved in church, and live an interesting life. I pressed her and she gave me a copy of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee reading list, which I started reading immediately and had basically finished before I entered seminary, only to find that much of the list had changed by that point.

I had the same conversation about entering the ministry with Ken Sawyer and I remember almost nothing of that conversation. But, Ken did take note. At age 19 I joined the congregation’s lay ministry team during summer break and I was assigned to visited Ernie. Sometimes we sat and talked. Often we shot billiards together at the Wayland Senior Center. Occasionally I gave him a lift to the nursing home where his wife was slowly dying from abdominal cancer.

Sometimes, before I let them have their moment together, I played messenger. Her voice was very weak and he was very hard of hearing so I sat very close and screamed into his ear what she whispered into mine. It was uncomfortable but it wasn’t. It was beautiful and sad and poignant. It was certainly a lot more comfortable than attending a committee meeting of the lay ministers, who were all the moms of my friends.

I was earnest. I co-taught second-grade Sunday school with the father of a friend of mine. I voluntarily attended board meetings, well, at least one board meeting. And the board went into executive session to discuss a personnel decision and I sat out in the hall until someone was considerate enough to unlock the church office so I could call my parents and get picked up.


Drawing My Faith Journey

After my first year as the minister here I designed a class that we now call the Exploring Membership class. Early in this class there is an exercise in which participants are given crayons and asked to draw their faith journey on a piece of paper. Every drawing that I have ever seen represents a path. Some paths are meandering. Others are like climbing a mountain or a mountain range with peaks and valleys. Some paths are spiral shaped and others are circular. When I draw mine, there is no path.

Here is what I draw:

I begin by drawing the church of my childhood, a large, white, New England colonial meetinghouse with a tall steeple and a bell made by Paul Revere and a weathervane on top, not a cross. The weathervane is not there because we Unitarians decided to take the cross down. None of the Puritan churches had crosses on top either. Even a simple symbol like that smacked of popery.

But the church I draw has two key features. The first feature is an open door to symbolize acceptance and affirmation. When my high school started a Gay/Straight Alliance in 1994, the founding members were basically the youth of the First Parish in Wayland. The second feature is a lawn in front of the church. The town green. John Buehrens theologizes the significance of the UU church on the town green by saying it is a spatial representation of a theological ideal: “The church is a spiritual center with a civic circumference.”

Below, the picture I put very strong brackets. The brackets are there to represent that no matter how my theology has changed over time, my church, my faith home, has always been large enough to contain my theology.

Inside the brackets I draw a parade of symbols. The first symbol I use is a bunch of symbols from the world religions arranged in a circle. There is no chalice in the center. (Many UU churches have artistic representations of the world religions with a big, fat chalice smack-dab in the center. I believe this is quite arrogant.) But, the reason my drawing has no chalice in the center is that my Unitarian Universalist religious education growing up was sparse on the Unitarian Universalist part, at least explicitly, which I regret. We learned about Christianity and Judaism and Islam and Taoism and Hinduism and earth-based traditions.

The next movement in my theology was towards a magical faith that was earth-based and neo-pagan. I believe that our physical biology as teenagers makes earth-based neo-paganism extremely enticing. Part of the reason for this is that our culture considers neo-paganism to be taboo and occult. And, teens love things that are taboo and occult and full of magic secrecy. But, more than that, earth-based traditions are based both on mythology, which features very interesting characters from very interesting places, and they are also based on rhythms and cycles, rhythms and cycles that teenage bodies are going through, and how! Neo-paganism’s embodied practice – dance, labyrinth walking, casting and un-casting circles – holds attention, as does the ritual burning of fragrances and the ritual consumption of food.

Perhaps most of all, neo-paganism implicitly contains a theology of power that makes it appealing to teens who struggle with issues of power, agency, and control. To make this clear, all you need to do is look at the Harry Potter books. For the record, let me say that the Harry Potter series is a part of the fantasy genre and isn’t representative of neo-paganism. But, if Harry Potter were a Catholic kid going through confirmation or a Jewish kid having his Bar Mitzvah, I contend the stories would be quite different. And, that difference has to do with a philosophy of power, the way power is obtained, mastered, and used. Neo-paganism is very high on the concept of self-authoring power and that makes it especially appealing to teens who are empowered to new responsibilities but also have limits imposed on their choices. Neo-paganism does not appeal only to teens, but it certainly appeals to teens.

My falling away from neo-paganism at age 19 was both gradual and extremely sudden. The gradual part was based in two criticisms. One criticism was based in growing doubts about the historicity of claims that were made by many practitioners of neo-paganism. At this time, I was looking at religion mainly through the lens of history and a lot of the story struck me as dubious. This was five years before Cynthia Eller published her book entitled, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future. The second criticism was based on a sociological analysis of how power operated in neo-pagan groups in which I participated. I had concerns about how power operated in these groups. (If you are interested in the sociology of neo-pagansim, I might refer you to a brilliant book of sociology by Helen Berger entitled, A Community of Witches.)

Though neither book had been written yet, my experiences resembled the analysis found in those two books and helped to explain my slow falling away from neo-paganism. The fast falling away is another story entirely, a story for another time.

My reaction against neo-paganism led me in the completely opposite direction and I embraced an understanding of the world that was absolutely free from mystery. From age 19 to 21 I was avowedly atheistic. I owned a copy of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian but I didn’t read much of it. I much preferred the irreverent literature of Kurt Vonnegut, an avowed skeptic and free-thinker, but also someone who whose writings were deeply cynical about humanity. I found myself resonating with the final lines of Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle,
If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison [Ice-9, an imaginary substance that causes everything it touches to freeze] that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.
My theology began to shift yet again when I arrived at Harvard Divinity School. At Harvard, for the first time in my life, I found myself in community with Christians. And it was great. I was probably a bit insufferable from time to time, but, let me tell you, everyone should be so blessed as to have their first significant encounter with Christians be with ministry students at Harvard Divinity School. I found them to be intelligent, nuanced, theologically-mature, devoted, and open-minded. My classmates included those preparing for ministry in the United Church of Christ and other liberal denominations, Catholics with a strong social justice orientation who were preparing not for the priesthood but for non-profit or educational work, future ministers in the black church tradition, and many of my fellow UU seminarians who self-identified as Christians. And, through my associations with my classmates I began to increasingly appreciate liberal Christianity.

Liberal Christianity became the next stage on my path. And again, I have to note that I consider myself lucky that my first serious encounter with Christianity was with these very lovable and extremely intelligent people: The UCC minister-to-be who shared with me Bobby McFerrin’s beautiful version of the 23rd Psalm, which ends with McFerrin singing praise to a different version of the Trinity. "Glory be unto the Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy of Holies." I enjoyed the presence of my Catholic classmates who read liberation theology, believed in a preferential option for the poor, and were engaged in working for the rights of immigrants and Catholic worker justice movements.

When I symbolize this theological stage I always draw a version of the cross that is usually identified with the United Methodist denomination. The flame represents the Holy Spirit that descends on the Pentecost in the Book of Acts and causes the early Christian community to speak in tongues. “And each hears in their own native tongue and each is understood.” I’ve always interpreted this passage as being about having the spiritual maturity to translate another person’s religious language into terms that you understand. It is a passage about translation and common understanding. It is the Biblical version of E Pluribus Unum: Out of many, one.

Well, I’ve been drawing these maps of my spiritual journey for the past six years and I always draw one step that is beyond the cross. I draw a pair of symbols. One of those symbols is a hand, just like the hands that you find on the stole that I wear over my robe in church on Sunday mornings. The other symbol is a question mark. To me, these are symbols of ministry. When Cassi and Leslie sewed the stole that was given to me during my ordination and installation in this church on October 26, 2003, I asked them to stitch cutouts of hands onto the stole. To me hands represent partnership. They also represent work and service. In adult church we say, “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.” Our younger children say, “May we have hearts that are open to love, minds that are open to learn, and hands that are ready to serve.” We are the church of the open mind, the open heart, and the open hand and so the hand symbol, for me, represents a lived theology. The work of ministry is the attempt to live out my theology every day.

The question mark is there because ministry is inherently other-centered. The question mark refers to those among whom I practice ministry. This is not to say that I am without questions. I have plenty of questions. But, my role as a minister is to be with you amidst the questions you are asking. Sometimes my role is to be a wise advisor. Often, it is to be a companion in searching. Occasionally, my role is to just be befuddled and unsure. But ministry means my life is lived among people who are asking important questions.


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