Friday, November 12, 2010

Sermon: "Welcome as Ministry and Spiritual Practice" (Delievered 11-7-10)

The reading comes from Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales’ essay “Welcome” in The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality, edited by Thom Belote.
The issue of religious hospitality is ultimately a moral and spiritual issue… Religious hospitality is the moral equivalent of feeding the hungry and giving shelter to the homeless. The people coming to us are spiritually hungry and religiously homeless.

Americans today are the most isolated people in human history. That is a bold statement. A study published in the June 2006 American Sociological Review shows a decline in close relationships so large and so rapid that the data shocked sociologists… The study was essentially a repetition of one done in 1985. Both interviewed participants about the number of people in whom they confide personal information, and both asked participants a number of questions about their confidants. By asking the same questions asked in 1985, they could track changes.

For example, in 1985… the response given most often to the question about the number of confidants was three. In 2004, the most common response was zero. The percentage of people who said that they had non one with whom they could confide jumped from 10 percent in 1985 to 24.6 percent in 2004… According to the study, almost half of all Americans now have either no one or only one person with whom they can discuss important matters.

These are not dull, abstract numbers. They are a cry of isolation, of pain, of loneliness. Americans are far lonelier than they were a generation ago. Many of us are lonely, and all of us are surrounded by lonely people.

In the book Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortensen shares his tale of a Himilayan hiking adventure gone wrong. After becoming separated from his climbing group while attempting to climb K-2 in the early 1990s, Mortensen wandered the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and was taken in and nursed back to health by the residents of a village in Afghanistan. “Three cups of tea” is a reference to a saying in the village about hospitality. The first time you share tea with a person from this village you are a stranger; the second cup is an offer of friendship; the third cup of tea means that you are now a part of the family. That profound experience, with a radical welcome at its center, reshaped the course of Mortensen’s life.

Three cups of tea has a different meaning in a different part of the world. In 1957, under the Eisenhower administration, the Department of Defense published a Pocket Guide to the Middle East. In the section on customs, the Pocket Guide offers the following advice,
When coffee or tea is served, you will be offered one to three cups or glasses—accept them. Since the cups and glasses are small, the quantity consumed will not be great. Besides, you may develop a taste for the local brands of these beverages, served hot, very sweet, and without milk. Always refuse a fourth cup. This is done by shaking your cup from side to side or turning it upside down. While it’s impolite to leave before the third cup is served, you may overstay your welcome if you linger after you drink it. The third cup is your signal to depart.

This morning my words are about welcoming. My words are about how we welcome and, more than that, about why we welcome. Oftentimes, when welcoming is the subject, the discussion becomes one about tactics. The tactics are often what membership teams in churches wrestle with. Should visitors be asked to stand and introduce themselves at some point in the service? Should we give visitors a special colored mug in coffee hour so that we know they are visitors? What follow-up should take place with a visitor? An email, a phone call, a card, a face-to-face visit? When someone has completed our Exploring Membership class, in what way should the invitation to join the church be extended?

These are questions about tactics. And, while I don’t want to spend very much time on the subject of tactics, I do want to make just a point or two of observation. I could ask each person in this room to imagine a visit to a church for the first time and what would constitute a warm and wonderful welcome. We could each name our platonic ideal of what a genuine welcome is like and we might find that we have different images in mind. Case in point, a few weeks ago a member of our congregation told me about visiting a UU church while on vacation in another part of the country. She told me how at the beginning of the service they asked visitors to please stand and how great it felt to be able to stand up and say she was visiting from the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church. Of course, I also remember a guest who visited our church once who told me, “Thank goodness you didn’t ask visitors to stand. I would never stand. But when the greeter asks people to stand I feel like every eyeball in the room is on me and makes me want to curl up in a fetal position underneath my chair.”

In villages along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border a third cup of tea is a sign that you are now part of the family. On the Arabian Peninsula a third cup of tea indicates that you have overstayed your welcome. So, let us not be surprised that for some people an invitation to sign the membership book will be perceived as pushy while for others anything less than a marching band spelling out the words “sign the book” on your front lawn will be perceived as cold and standoffish.

So, from time to time we do tell you that no matter how narrow and congested our foyer is, it is unwelcoming to bunch up there and it is especially unwelcoming to bunch up in front of the membership table. And, from time to time we do remind you that nobody should be left standing alone in the Barn Chapel during coffee hour. But mostly, the art of welcoming requires a rejection of the Golden Rule. To welcome others as you would want to be welcomed is a little presumptuous. Instead, the art is to welcome others as they themselves wish to be welcomed.

Throughout this month, welcoming will be the central theme we will be exploring in our worship service. Next week we are going to have a special guest, Jose Soto, the brother of one of our church members. Mr. Soto is an educator on issues of anti-racism and multiculturalism and his message will touch on a very important facet of welcoming. The next week I’m going to be preaching a sermon based on something that former Unitarian Universalist Association President John Buehrens said to me three weeks ago when we were together in Dallas. Buehrens’ words carried much the same message as Peter Morales’ statement about the loneliness and isolation, the emptiness and longing that so many people experience in our contemporary society. Finally, we’re going to end the month with a message about welcoming that gives me the shivers just to think about. How can we fully embrace a posture of welcoming if we do not fully welcome ourselves for who we are? The last Sunday of the month I am going to attempt to describe some of the tensions that pull at us as religious people and I am going to say that the only solution that allows us to live fully is to live within those tensions. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s move from the tactics of welcoming to kind of the soul of welcoming.

A year ago I published a book on church growth and vitality that contained an essay by Peter Morales on welcoming. Peter’s chapter is striking in that he says that the art of welcoming is not a matter of manners or numbers. Instead he says that welcoming is both a moral imperative and a spiritual practice. To quote Peter,
We were transformed, spiritually transformed, by our practice of hospitality. The spiritual practice of deep hospitality made us more aware of others, more sensitive, more empathetic, and less self-centered. When we listened, really listened, to the people visiting our church, the implications were profound…

The initial work, as always, is spiritual. We must begin with awareness and compassion. We begin by truly opening our hearts. When we open our hearts to those coming to us and to the pain of their isolation, we immediately want to reach out. That, after all, is what love is; reaching out is how love expresses itself. Opening our hearts also means—and too often we forget this crucial element—that we have to be willing to be changed by our new relationships…. When love and awareness guide us we realize that to ignore the pain and needs of [others]… is morally wrong.
What are we to make out of that strong language? Is he just speaking in hyperbole to try to make his point? Maybe welcoming is really about manners and everything Peter Morales says about spirituality and morality is just exaggeration.

When I was in seminary I had a friend who was studying to become an Episcopalian priest. Her first position was as an assistant minister at an historic and thriving Episcopalian Church in Boston. Her job title was the coolest job title ever. She was “Minister of Radical Hospitality.” You see, there is a welcome that belongs on a doormat. And, then there is a welcome worthy of being called radical hospitality.

So, let me cut to the chase here and get at what I want to say about the soul of welcoming. It seems to me that welcoming really means something when the stakes are high. There is a doormat welcome and then there is a lost and wandering in the Himalayas kind of welcome. One type of welcome involves manners and social codes. The other type of welcome engenders profound transformation. That kind of welcome, as it did for Greg Mortenson, resets your compass and recalibrates your course in the world. It is a radical welcome.

We may not be taking in lost mountain climbers, but make no mistake: the stakes are high. It is rare that anyone walks through the doors of this church for frivolous reasons. Nobody shows up and says, “Well, I guess I’m here because I was bored and I was getting restless and needed something to pass the time before the football games start.” Along those same lines, nobody ever arrives at our doorstep by accident. Nobody turns up on our doorstep, leather-bound Bible in tow, assuming that they are going to hear orthodox Christian doctrine. As Peter Morales puts it, “People are not coming to us to find out if they agree with us.” Nobody arrives here randomly, for a laugh, on a whim. Heck, in more than seven years here I don’t think we’ve ever had an actual flesh-and-blood visitor who had so much as confused us with Unity.

Let’s face it: we are not that easy to find. Those that come here have intentionally and purposefully sought us out. In researching us they’ve more than likely discovered that they are on the same wave-length as us intellectually and cognitively and that their values are deeply aligned with our values. What they can’t know from looking at our website or from reading the sermons I post on my blog, is whether we actually embody what we say about ourselves. Are we a habitable home for the human spirit?

If welcoming is a spiritual practice, it probably builds off of several habits of being in the world that are the products of other spiritual paths. Hospitality is a blending of compassion, self-differentiation, forgiveness, and generosity.

A few weeks ago I overheard something in passing out in the foyer after the service. It was a comment by a member of the church. I don’t want to embarrass the person so I am not going to say who, but she began the sentence with something like these words, “When I hear something that I don’t care for during the worship service, I…” Needless to say, I was very interested in how this individual was planning to finish this sentence. She finished the sentence this way, “When I hear something that I don’t care for during the worship service, I remind myself that those words may have been the words that the person sitting next to me needed to hear.” That expression combined all of these elements. That listener had compassion for others whose needs were different than hers. She had forgiveness, namely the ability to forgive me for speaking words she may not have preferred. She had self-differentiation. She realized that she was not the only person in the room. And, she had generosity. She was willing to share my voice with other people.

I try to follow a rule in the pulpit. If I am tempted to tell a story that makes me look good, I can probably find a better story that makes someone else look good. If I am tempted to tell a story that makes someone else look bad, I can probably find a story about myself to tell instead.

I want to tell you a story from about six weeks ago that involved a failure of hospitality on my part. Welcoming is an act that combines compassion, self-differentiation, forgiveness, and generosity. Its opposite, being inhospitable, combines rigidity with an attitude of scarcity.

Six weeks ago I was teaching a class on Wednesday night. The week before, we had agreed that we would meet early and join together in sharing Wednesday dinner as a class before we switched locations and finished our class meeting in another room. We set up a table with a chair for each person in the class. We were just beginning to discuss the material for this class session. I looked up and I saw the last member of our class come into the Barn Chapel and start in at the buffet. And, just that moment, I received another person came up to me and asked if she might join our table for dinner. This was a person who was new to the church and had actually come that evening to attend our Exploring Membership class.

And, my response was not what it should have been. My response should have been, “Please sit down, the more the merrier.” Compassion and generosity. Instead, my response was, “This seat is actually spoken for. We’re holding a class meeting right now.” Rigidity and scarcity. I turned back to the table and attempted to reconnect with the flow of the conversation until I looked up ten minutes later and realized this person was sitting alone in the Barn Chapel. Mine had been a failure of hospitality. I had been clinging to a script for how the evening’s class was supposed to go, a script that only I knew. I had only seen a scarcity. A scarcity of chairs, a scarcity of room at the table, a scarce vision of the possibilities for our meal together. I try my best not to scare off every new person who comes into our church.

Compassion, charity, self-differentiation, generosity, flexibility, forgiveness. These are lofty qualities to aspire to embody. As Peter Morales puts it, “The spiritual practice of deep hospitality made us more aware of others, more sensitive, more empathetic, and less self-centered.”

It is worth aspiring to embody these qualities. After all, the need is great. Those coming in our doors are deeply disappointed by the politics of our country, are worried about the crush of unemployment, and are fearful for their own future as well as the future of their children, grandchildren, and planet. Those coming in our doors are seeking meaning within a culture that often seems hollow and dehumanizing. Those coming in our doors have known the kind of isolation and loneliness of which Peter Morales speaks. May the welcome we offer be an agent of transformation.