Monday, March 19, 2012

Sermon: "Lessons from Our Newest Members" (Delivered 3-18-12)

Back when I was the Intern Minister at a church in the Dallas area, a hip looking young couple visited the church for the first time.  I was preaching the sermon that day and during the sermon they caught my eye.  They seemed really engaged, smiling, nodding, the works.  I sensed a connection.  I felt positive vibes.  After the service I went over to talk to them.  They were enthusiastic.  They told me, “We’ve been looking for a church with liberal theology.  It is great that you are so inclusive and welcoming and so affirming of diversity.”  By this point I was smiling and nodding back at them.  “But, we do have a question,” they continued.  “Does this church have a volleyball team?”  I told them we didn’t.  Immediately, their smiles disappeared; they looked crestfallen.  “Oh, we were hoping to find a liberal church with a volleyball team.”  I tried a little leadership jujitsu.  I explained that we were a permission-giving church and would support them if they wanted to start a volleyball team.  This didn’t interest them.  They informed me that they were going to keep looking for a church.

There are all sorts of wrong conclusions that we can draw from this story.  The moral of this story is not that we should start a volleyball league.  The moral of the story is that we all come to a church, and go through life, having made certain value judgments and assumptions.  For example, I believe a church’s basic theology, principles, and values are probably just about the most important thing a church has, and certainly more important than the types of social activities a church offers.  Because I make this value judgment, I tend to assume that others see things in much the same way that I see things.  It was shocking to me that someone would think that the core values of a church are equally important as a volleyball team.  I had assumed something that didn’t turn out to be the case.

The idea for this service came from an experience I had last fall that involved being with people who had different assumptions.  Last fall I was the keynote speaker at the 50th anniversary celebration of a UU church in Louisville.  They graciously hosted me for a weekend.  In addition to preaching I also led a workshop for them on welcoming young families.  The attendees at this workshop included board members and membership committee members, a group with an average age of 65.  There was also a group of young families in attendance.  I divided the two groups up and instructed each group to report back with a general religious biography of their group.

Here is what the leadership group came back with:  We grew up going to church, Catholic or Protestant.  In high school or college we started to have a problem with the beliefs.  We wanted a church where rationality and science are welcome.  We know what we don’t believe and don’t want to say or sing things we don’t believe in.

And then it was the young families’ turn:  We grew up religiously confused, they said.  We were hungry for spirituality, but didn’t see a place for it in the churches of our childhood if we even went to one.  Want better for our children.  We want a church that is an accepting, inclusive place conducive to spiritual exploration.

Do you see where these two groups might hold different assumptions and those different assumptions might cause some tension?  So, I came home from Louisville and wondered about our congregation.  I decided to send out a survey to every person who has decided to join the church in the past year.  I created a survey that asked about things that I had discussed with the folks in Louisville.  My attempt was not to come up with something scientific.  (A sociologist would probably tear her hair out with this survey.)  Instead, the survey is impressionistic.  One person wrote, “I found this survey very Thom, and embodying a great deal of what I like about… the UU spirit – clever, respectful of the diversity of views in the community, [and] focused on nurturing those journeys in a lively loving way.”  The survey was intended to stimulate reaction.  I received about forty responses, with more than half of those responding choosing to answer in paragraph or even essay form in addition to multiple choice.  (You can find the quantitative results here.)

In the first two questions on the survey, I asked about how religious our newest members’ upbringings had been and about whether it was a mostly positive or mostly negative experience.  A lot of our newest members wrote long responses to these questions.  What stands out from those responses is that the answers had very little to do with beliefs.  Those who had a positive experience wrote about feeling that the church was a warm, safe, and nurturing community and often commented about inspiring relationships with a minister or with a lay leader.  Those who had a negative experience also wrote more about behavior than belief.  They wrote about being exposed to hypocrisy, exclusiveness, and meanness.

What was striking to me in the responses was that almost no one wrote to me about leaving the church of their childhood because of an intellectual rejection of doctrine.  Deeds were more important than creeds.  I was left with the sense that those who chose to comment took the position that the most basic, essential teaching of Jesus is one and the same with that saying from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  “Be excellent to each other.”  There was sensitivity to when religion treated people in ways that were “bogus.”

One of our new members wrote to me that a family member referred to himself as a worthless sinner.  This didn’t seem healthy, and it was at odds with her experience of him as a good, kind, and generous man.  Another wrote “I do not think religion should be used to single people out or make them feel bad.  I don’t think people should be lectured about their beliefs or life choices, but, instead, given insights and wisdom to reflect on.”

I found the results to questions five and six to be not only interesting and consistent, but also in line with what I had heard from younger families in the Louisville congregation.  A full 75% percent of the newest members of this church wrote that they either really liked or were generally open to religious words like God, spirit, and grace.  And, of the 25% who don’t care much for these words, not a single person wrote to take this position vehemently.  Here is what one person who doesn’t find religious language meaningful wrote, “I do like that SMUUCh is not totally secular, but what is most important to me is tolerance and openness.  Unlike [some] atheists I have met, I don’t think that people who believe in God are delusional.  I am not going to judge them.”

This openness was consistent with the responses to question six, in which I proposed a hypothetical religious education class, a highly participatory class on the varieties of religious experience, complete with meditation, chant, movement, dance, and so on.  Two-thirds replied that they’d be willing to try such a class.  Many wrote notes such as, “You need to offer this class. Seriously.”  Another wrote, “I would love to learn and experience other spiritual practices by actually doing… as long as it doesn’t get too weird.  I don’t know what that would actually entail, maybe blood sacrifice?”  Question six, it occurs to me, touches not only on spiritual orientation, but also personality type.  When we use the service to teach hand gestures and dance moves for the hymn “Spirit of Life,” some of you are ecstatic and others of you stand there with your arms crossed over your chest.  In fact, some of you have asked me whether we might add dance moves to other hymns and others have said to let them know when we plan to do hand gestures so they can avoid coming to church.

I have to tell you that I’m not altogether sure that question eight was all that effective in asking for what I was interested in learning.  Question eight asked our newest members to react to a joke about Unitarian Universalists choosing a discussion of heaven over actually going to heaven.  Just over 50% of those I asked said that they saw a bit of themselves in this joke.  The other half said that they didn’t really see themselves in the joke, but these results are definitely open to interpretation.

Now, there just so happens to be a few dozen Unitarian Universalist jokes that get recycled over and over, year after year.  Believe me, I’ve heard them all.  Jokes can either name a truth or perpetuate a stereotype.  And, with the joke about choosing the discussion group about heaven, I was curious about whether the joke contained a truth or perpetuated a stereotype, and whether the joke would be seen as valid to those who are newest here.  What would it mean if a demographic within the church were to say that they either didn’t get the joke, or didn’t think it was particularly funny?  Do some UU jokes have an expiration date?

Case in point, recently another UU joke was mentioned within our church community.  The joke goes, “What is the definition of a Unitarian Universalist?  An atheist with children.”  And, not everybody found this joke funny.  So, what is your reaction to the atheist with children joke?  Do you hear it and think, “Guilty as charged”?  Or, do you hear it and feel excluded?

Right before I sent out the survey, I made a few predictions about what the results would show.  For a few of the questions, my predictions turned out to be accurate.  For other questions, the results completely took me by surprise.  To me, the most surprising results of the survey came from the responses to question seven.  This question asks what your religious affiliation would be if there were no UU churches in the Kansas City metro area.  Eighty-eight percent said they would not belong to a religious community if it was not a Unitarian Universalist community.

Take a moment to let that sink in.  88% of those who joined this church in the past year did not join this community instead of a Methodist or Catholic or Jewish or UCC congregation.  They came here and thought, “If not here, then nowhere.”  In fact, in the written responses, some people got creative.  One respondent said that she would probably take her whole family to Sierra Club meetings, but it wouldn’t be the same.  Another said that she would form a spiritual discussion group in her home.  One respondent said that she would create a curriculum on the world religions for her child, but that it would be challenging and lonely.  A fourth said that she would drive to the Lawrence UU Fellowship as often as she could.

I was surprised by the response to this question because I would think that the openness to religious language indicated by question five and the openness to religious experience indicated by question six would have led to greater willingness to try out other kinds of religious communities if a UU congregation was unavailable.  But, no, the data said exactly the opposite. There is something about this congregation that is unique and important and amazing.  After all, you did not choose this church because of its volleyball team.

Here are some responses from the newest members of this church on how they first heard about Unitarian Universalism:

“I know I heard of Unitarianism when I learned of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Not sure when that was.  I knew someone in Kansas City years ago who was Unitarian.”

“I discovered UU while researching material for lesson plans on transcendentalist poetry.”

“I learned about Unitarianism from Robert Fulghum’s ‘All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.’”

“We attended a forum on organic farming at All Souls.  I remember walking in there and thinking, ‘This is a church. . . that is okay with people being gay. . . and cares about the environment?’ 

“I came to speak to SMUUCh [on a] Donate the Plate [Sunday].  After sitting through 2 sermons to give my speech, I was surprised that there was a ‘church’ out there that had my same feelings [and] approach to religion.”

“I saw a post on Facebook about the Thanksgiving / Black Friday Celebrate / What You Have Day activities, and it sounded like something my husband and I would love to do.”

“[We] were getting married and we didn't want a justice of the peace to marry us. We wanted a spiritual ceremony but not a religious ceremony. I found a quiz online through Beliefnet and I scored as 99% Unitarian Universalist.”

“I think originally I heard of the UU when searching for a church to marry us in Omaha, Nebraska, where I’m from. I came upon the UUs there and started reading how welcoming the congregation was. I remember being intrigued, but at the time, I didn’t want to add going to church to my life since I had two full-time jobs and was planning a wedding. Fast forward to last winter…my husband came upon the SMUUCH web site and was so excited. He kept reading to me from [the minister’s] blog posts and I said I’d definitely go check it out.”

“My wife found you guys online after I jokingly asked her to type ‘The First Agnostic Church’ into Google.”

“In high school, I recall people making references to my church as being nearly as liberal as a Unitarian Church.”
“While attending the Presbyterian church, the pastor lent me a book… called Kingdom of the Cults which I think had a small section on Unitarianism [which told me that Unitarians] don't believe Jesus is god as confirmed in the Nicene creed thus they are wrong and bad.”

“We searched the internet here in Kansas City for Unitarian and found SMUUCh.  We've gotten happier and happier with everything that has happened since then!”

New Member Survey 2012

I created this survey and distributed it to members who joined the church after January 2011 and those who have taken the Exploring Membership class so far in 2012, as well as to a handful of frequent visitors.  You can also read the sermon about the results of the survey.

1) Which of the following statements best describes your religious upbringing?
A. My upbringing was very religious and/or I frequently attended religious activities  38%
B. My upbringing was somewhat religious and/or I sometimes attended religious activities 26%
C. My upbringing was vaguely religious and/or I infrequently attended religious activities  18%
D. My upbringing was secular and/or I almost never attended religious activities  18%

2) (Please skip this question if your upbringing was secular.) Which of these following statements best describes your feelings about your religious upbringing?
A. My religious upbringing was mostly a positive experience for me  32%
B. My religious upbringing was mostly a negative experience for me  21%
C. My religious upbringing was definitely a mixed-bag, with some positive aspects and some negative aspects.  47%

3) How did you first hear about Unitarian Universalism?  Various answers…
            Website / Internet
            Friend / Co-worker
            Googled “First Agnostic Church”
            Attended progressive community group that met in a UU Church
            College literature classes, Emerson, Thoreau, etc.
            Raised UU
            Given book on “cults” that included Unitarianism as a cult!

4) Why did you start regularly coming to this church?  (Please list all that apply.)
A. I wanted religious experiences for my child/ren  65%
B. I wanted to belong to a community  76%
C. I wanted a place to develop my own personal religious and ethical understandings  65%
D. I was hungry for experiences that could be described as spiritual  32%
E. I was going through a tough time and thought a church might help  24%
F. I wanted to join with others in doing social action and community service  53%
G. I wanted to be around people who share my values  85%
H. I’m not sure why I started coming  6%
I. Other:  Various answers… support with family transition, multi-faith orientation, place where partners could both be comfortable, personal development, etc.

5) Which of these statements best describes your thoughts about religious language (i.e. words like soul, spirit, God, prayer, grace, holy, etc.)?
A. These words are meaningful to me and I like it when they are used   30%
B. I don’t mind these words as long as it is clear that they are being used in a non-traditional sense  45%
C. I don’t care for most of these words and don’t find them personally meaningful  25%

6) Imagine that there is an adult religious education class being offered that is described this way:  “Spiritual Experiences and Practices.  Come join this highly participatory class in which we explore and experience spiritual practices from around the world.  We will meditate, walk a labyrinth, chant, and more.  Wear loose fitting clothing as movement will be a part of our practice.”  Which of the following best describes your reaction to this course listing?
A. Sign me up!  It is like this class was created with me in mind.  41%
B. I might take it if there was nothing better going on.  27%
C. I prefer to engage with other religious traditions by discussing them while sitting around a table, thank you.  23%
D. This class sounds like my own personal version of hell.  9%

7) What would you do if there were no UU churches in the Kansas City metro area?
A. I would probably attend a Christian church  6%
B. I would probably attend a non-Christian religious community  6%
C. I probably would not attend any religious community  88%

8) An old UU joke goes something like this.  “When you die you enter the afterlife and you travel along a road until there is a fork in the road.  One path has a sign that says ‘To Heaven’ and goes towards a bright light and a golden staircase.   The other path leads towards a room with fluorescent lighting, a coffee maker, and folding chairs.  That path is marked with a sign that reads ‘To Discussion about Heaven.’  That’s the path that Unitarian Universalists take.”  Which of these statements describes your reaction to the joke?
A. Ha!  Good one!  That joke is definitely about me.  52%
B. I don’t think this joke is very funny, mostly because it doesn’t speak to my experience of Unitarian Universalism.  10%
C. I don’t like having only two choices.  Can I make my own path?  38%
D. I don’t get it. 0%

9) What is your generation?
A. Generation X  56%
B. Generation Y / Millennial  25%
C. Baby-boomer  19%
D. Other 0%

10) Which of the following statements best describes your reaction to this survey?
A. I enjoyed it.  Thanks for sending it to me.  100%
B. I didn’t like your questions and think it would be better if you asked other questions.  0%

Monday, March 05, 2012

Sermon: "Freedom of Religion, For Us and For All" (Delivered 3-4-12)

From John F. Kennedy's speech on the separation of church and state, delivered to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960.
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference – and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. 
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials...
For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist.  Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you.
Whenever I have the opportunity to speak about religious freedom, I do so with the fond memories of the time I spent, nearly half a lifetime ago, immersed in a year-long research project on the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.  The Virginia Statute was a piece of legislation authored by Thomas Jefferson and submitted to the Virginia General Assembly in 1779.  Composed a full decade earlier than the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute was the first legal expression of a modern understanding of religious freedom.  I spent a year researching religious freedom in the colonies, read over fifty books on the subject, and traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, to handle original texts from the revolutionary period having to do with religious freedom.

I mention the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and that research project from so many years ago, because whenever there is talk about the religious views of the Founding Fathers, or about the meaning of religious freedom in the United States, or about the separation of church and state, these are things that I not only have an opinion about, but also of which I have a significant and serious historical understanding.

In speaking about religious freedom, I should also mention my volunteer role serving as the Vice-President of the MainStream Coalition here in Johnson County, an organization deeply committed to the separation of religion and government.  I don’t talk about my volunteer efforts with MainStream often from the pulpit because I am sensitive about perceived conflicts of interest.  But, I’ve recently been revisiting these ideas about the separation of church and state in preparation for a forum I’ll be leading on that subject later this spring.

And, not a moment too soon, it would seem.  At this moment religion and religious freedom are all over the news.  Most notably, religious freedom is being debated as it relates to health care legislation and the coverage of contraception and other health services related to human sexuality.  I had originally planned to focus my comments this morning on the subject of religious freedom and sexuality, but then decided to speak more broadly this morning and to return to the theme of sexuality and health next month.

While it’s sex that gets all the attention, there are other stories about religious freedom that are worthy of mention.  They include recent Supreme Court rulings about religious freedom, a number of pieces of legislation that have been proposed in Topeka, media coverage of the religious proclamations of those running for office, and repetitions of the spurious claim that there is a “war on religion” occurring in the United States.

Religion has been a major story concerning the two frontrunners seeking the Republican nomination for President.  But, it is nothing new for religion and politics to be linked.  We may remember that four years ago Barack Obama halted his campaign in Philadelphia to make a speech on race.  But, this was a speech necessitated because of publicized remarks by Obama’s minister, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and Obama used the speech to clarify his religious views and affiliation.  A half-century earlier, John F. Kennedy had seen it necessary to make a speech to allay fears that his Catholicism would interfere with his loyalty to his country.  And, Thomas Jefferson himself faced crude allegations and boldfaced lies from his critics about his alleged religious views or alleged lack thereof, attacks that are equally offensive, if not more offensive, than anything faced by any politician or candidate today.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States contains two clauses regarding religious freedom.  These are known as the establishment clause – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” – and the free exercise clause – “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Thomas Jefferson put it much more colloquially when he said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no God.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

We need to remember that the mixing of religion and government caused many pockets to be picked, many legs to be broken, and worse.  The Founding Fathers were reacting against British and European history in which religious heresy could get you imprisoned or even executed.  Moreover, they were reacting against a state supported religious system in which government corruption and religious corruption were one and the same.  The Puritans were particularly upset that their taxes went to support the Church of England.  Chief among their complaints was that the priesthood was not filled with godly men, but rather with the nepotistic appointments of the sons of the landed gentry.  The Puritans published extensive gossipy publications in which they named names and accused certain Anglican priests of adultery, illiteracy, and drunkenness.

Of course, once the Puritans and others left Europe to seek out religious freedom in the new world, they set up a system in which taxes paid for the construction of church buildings and for the salaries of ministers.  Massachusetts supported its ministers and churches, including its Unitarian ministers and Unitarian churches, with tax dollars up until 1833, a full forty years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights that was intended to prohibit the establishment of religion.

I want to focus very quickly on three different recent events that fall outside of the sphere of national politics but that say something about the state of religious freedom in our country at the present moment.  As you hear these stories, make sure to note your reactions.

The first story concerns a Unitarian Universalist church in Wayzata, Minnesota, that successfully sued the town in which it is located.  Several years ago, the church outgrew its building and arranged to purchase a larger tract of land on the edge of town on which it planned to expand.  The city told the church it could not build there because the land was not zoned for church use.  The church filed a lawsuit claiming that the town’s zoning requirements violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.  A little over two months ago, the city reached a settlement with the church, agreeing to pay the church a half million dollars in damages and also agreeing, as a condition of the settlement, to assist the Unitarian church in purchasing an adjacent parcel of land.

Story number two.  A little less than two months ago, the US Supreme Court ruled in a case brought by a teacher whose employment at a Lutheran religious school had been terminated.  The teacher claimed that she was discriminated against because she had a disability.  The case hinged on whether or not religious institutions need to follow federal employment laws.  The school argued that because the teacher led prayers and other religious activities, she was technically a minister and that therefore enforcing federal employment laws constituted a violation of the free exercise clause of the constitution.  Religious groups carefully watched this case.  In fact, the Unitarian Universalist Association filed an amicus brief, essentially an open letter to the court in favor of a specific ruling, in support of the teacher and insisting that religious organizations should have to follow anti-discrimination laws in this case. The UUA was the lone religious group to show its support for anti-discrimination laws.  On the other side, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Mormons, Episcopalians, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, as wells as Orthodox and Reform Jews all supported the school in saying that the freedom of religion includes the freedom to openly discriminate.  The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, agreed that churches must be free to practice their faith, even if that faith is discriminatory.

Third story.  If you’ve been following the news out of Topeka, you know that this legislative session is taking up one lousy piece of legislation after another.  One of these awful bills is House Bill 2260, known as the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.  In a nutshell, what this bill is designed to do is to allow individuals and businesses to discriminate in ways that violate local anti-discrimination ordinances as long as they claim that such discrimination is done for religious reasons.  It says that a person’s religion gives them the right to discriminate against other people based on their marital status or sexual orientation.  The author of this bill seems not only ignorant in matters of diversity, but also ignorant about the English language, twice making reference to “deeply-held religious tenants.”  A revised version of the bill correctly replaces the word “tenants” with “tenets.”  One more piece of evidence in favor of school funding.

A half million dollar judgment against a town for restricting where a church can be built, a unanimous Supreme Court ruling that declares that the first amendment trumps federal employment laws, the possibility of a Kansas law that protects religious bigotry – remind me again what people are talking about when they say that there is a war on religion?  It is doubtful that any of us believed that the phrase “the war on religion” was uttered seriously.  We know it for what it was, a charged piece of empty rhetoric intended to fire up the base and get people to the polls.  Jon Stewart said it best when he said that when people speak about a war on religion they are confusing persecution with not getting absolutely everything they want.

Of course, as I hear about these troubling cases in which religious groups assert the freedom to discriminate, I cannot help but wonder whether the first amendment should be subject to certain limits.  Would we be better off if religious liberty was curtailed in some instances?  I can think of another freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights that I am more than happy to let the government regulate.  I’m referring to the second amendment.  Yes, I would really like for there to be laws against my neighbor assembling an arsenal.  But then there are other rights that I believe simply cannot be abridged under any circumstance:  the right to a trial, for example.  Due process.

When Thomas Jefferson authored the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, he wrote something very interesting.  Jefferson wrote that “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.”  Jefferson seemed to believe in a free-market approach to religious ideas.  If the government would only refrain from regulating religion, true religion would eventually rise to the top, and false religion would die out.  Jefferson was a real optimist in this regard.  He wrote, “There is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.”  I think Thomas Jefferson may have miscalculated.  Two hundred and thirty years later we’re still waiting for truth, when left to itself, to prevail.

It seems to me that the freedom of religion is neither good nor bad all by itself.  The same goes for freedom of speech.  “Just because speech is free doesn’t mean it has to be worthless.”  The freedom of the press includes the freedom to publish trash.  Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.  And the freedom of religion does protect nastiness and small-mindedness, ignorance and arrogance, bigotry and hate.

As much as I’m interested in the history of religious freedom, as much as I’m interested in Supreme Court decisions involving religious freedom, I’m struck that from a religious perspective, and moreover from a moral and ethical perspective, the letter of the law can be an empty, empty thing.  Churches can build more or less where they want to.  Religious employers can discriminate.  Freedom of religion, according to some legislators in Topeka, may protect your freedom to be a religious jerk.  But, while freedom does often protect the lowest common denominator, freedom does not have to aspire to it.

How do you feel about these three cases?  What limits, if any, should there be to religious freedom?  As with most sermons, my word is not the final word.  It is for you to discuss, deliberate, debate, and, ultimately, decide.  But, as you go forth, I leave you with one more idea to consider.  Freedom can be both immature and mature.  An immature freedom relies on the idea of freedom to justify, rationalize, and excuse.  A mature freedom takes responsibility for its consequences.  Freedom also includes the freedom to be better than you are required to be.