Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Sermon: "Staying Healthy and Sane During the Holidays" (Delivered 11-24-13)

Call to Worship
It’s cliché to note that the “Holiday Season” seems to creep earlier each year.  This year it’s true though.  Hanukkah begins this coming Wednesday and people are already talking about plans to celebrate Thanksgivukkah this year.  NPR recently interviewed a young Jewish boy who had invented the menurkey, a menorah in the shape of a turkey meant to decorate the Thanksgiving table.

Welcome to this crazy-making time of the year, a headlong rush into the holidays of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, of Christmas and Solstice and Yule.  Welcome to the season of feasts and sweets and resolutions we plan to keep in January.  Welcome to Black Friday, which is hardly even Friday anymore, this time of giving and receiving gifts and our complicated relationship with consumption.  Welcome to this time of travel, of packed airports, of visits from family and friends.  Welcome the decorating, the baking, the lighting ceremonies, the holiday parties, the concerts and pageants.  Welcome faith observances crammed in there somewhere.

Maybe you find all this energizing and wonderful.  Maybe you find all this stressful.  Maybe you’ve already started a to-do list on your order of service.

But take a time to breathe.  Come into this hour of worship.  Come in and be here, now.  Come to be mindful of habits of health. Come to be grounded in your values.  Come, let us worship together.

This reading is adapted from Jane Rzepka’s meditation manual A Small Heaven.  This piece, “Important Notice,” can be found in its original form elsewhere on the web.

The following correction to an advertisement once ran in a small town newspaper in Virginia:

IMPORTANT NOTICE. If you are one of the hundreds of parachuting enthusiasts who bought our Easy Sky Diving book, please make the following correction: On page 8, line 7, the words “state zip code” should have read “pull rip cord.”

I worry about things like this during the holiday season.  Had I been a parachuting enthusiast, and had I breezed through Easy Sky Diving, I’d still be flying through the air, picking up speed, shouting my zip code.

Zip codes aren’t important.  Rip cords are. During this season, it’s all too easy to confuse one for the other.  The “zip codes” of the reason – the cards to mail, the four sticks of butter, the fruit-by-mail catalogs, the party shoes – have our attention, and before we know it, we’re picking up speed and shouting out those “zip codes” without ever asking why.

Perhaps we should look to our rip cords. Our life-lines, these days as always, are our inner quiet, the love we exchange, and our efforts to make the world more whole.  We can slow the descent.  We can take in the view.  And we can anticipate a gentle landing to come

The last time I met with the worship team, it was recommended to me that I preach on the topic of how to stay healthy and sane during the holiday season.  Honestly, my reaction to their suggestion was to ask, “Is that even still a thing?”  Are we still struggling with this?  Is this still a challenge?  I mean, it used to be that churches, even our church a decade ago, would come to the months of November and December and trot out well-worn courses about rethinking our approach to the holidays so that our celebrations become less stressful, less materialistic, less out-of-control, and more grounded in the values and priorities by which we hope to live.  One such course was based on the book Unplug the Christmas Machine.  Amazon.com describes the book as follows,

Sixteen years after it first appeared, this perennial favorite is still the book that thousands turn to for sound, no-nonsense advice on how to combat Christmas commercialism and create a joyful, stress-free holiday season. The authors answer all the most commonly asked questions, from "How can I reduce the stress of preparing for Christmas?" to "How can I teach my children that Christmas means more than just presents?" and many more. 

Buy new for $10.19. Free shipping on orders over $35. Only 13 left in stock. More on the way.  Gift wrap available. Want it Tuesday, November 26? Order in the next 7 hours and choose one day shipping at checkout.  Add to wish list. Frequently bought together with Christmas is Not Your Birthday by Mike Slaughter. Customers who bought this item also bought: The Hundred Dollar Holiday by Bill McKibben, Celebrate Simply by Nancy Twigg, the Unplug the Christmas Machine workshop guide, and Simplify Your Christmas: 100 Ways to Reduce the Stress and Recapture the Joy of the Holidays.

So I guess this is still a thing.  But why?  Didn’t we all develop spiritually?  Haven’t we increased in our awareness?  Haven’t we grown in our capacity to exercise some control over our lives, including the power to choose joy and avoid stress?  Judging by the fact that the book is still in print decades later, it is clear that the Christmas machine has not been unplugged.  Maybe our culture has utterly subsumed us.  Perhaps we should just throw up our hands and admit, like civilizations that encounter the Borg in Star Trek, that resistance is futile and that we will all be assimilated.

When the topic of Holiday stress was suggested to me, my first thought was, “Is this even still a thing?”  My second thought was “#firstworldproblems.”  Let me explain that saying so that we’re all on the same page.  A few years ago there was an internet meme called “First World Problems.”  According to the helpful website, knowyourmeme, first world problems “are frustrations and complaints that are only experienced by privileged individuals in wealthy countries. [The term] is typically used as a tongue-in-cheek comedic device to make light of trivial inconveniences.”  People would go to humor websites and post examples of complaints they had overheard that could only be described as first world problems. These complaints included: “I’d like to enjoy my glass of wine in the garden, but my wifi signal doesn’t reach that far.”  “I prefer to use my iPad3 but it doesn’t warm my lap as much as my MacBook Pro.”  And, many complaints about the holiday season sound an awful lot like first world problems.

Maybe all it takes is seeing our own lives through a different frame.  If we’re feeling annoyed or on edge or under stress, maybe the thing to do is to widen our perception and ask, “Wouldn’t the majority of people living on earth today actually envy me for the complaints I have?”  Maybe it’s time to name entitlement, to recognize privilege.  Maybe it’s time to say it: holiday stress is a first world problem.

Of course, being judgmental of others is not exactly enlightened behavior.  So while I’m tempted to stand here and pass judgment on the people making self-defeating financial decisions at the malls, to pass judgment on the stressed out shoppers on the verge of rioting outside the big box store, to pass judgment on the whiny child who throws a tantrum because the must-have toy this holiday season was sold out, or to pass judgment on the pained person over-serving himself at the holiday party, the truth is that judgment isn’t healthy behavior either.  Ministers aren’t supposed to aspire to be AM talk show hosts.

What are we to make out of holiday stress?  I have a theory.

One of the insights that ministers learn is that major life events in families such as the birth of a child, a marriage, or a death tend to be the times in the life of a family that are often filled with drama and the surfacing of tensions.  These are stress-raisers.  At the same time, there are important religious rites to mark these occasions.  People observe baptism and bris and child dedications, weddings, and funerals or memorial services.  (My clergy friends refer to these as hatching, matching, and dispatching.)  Anthropologists who study these rituals describe how these rituals around major life events create what they call liminal space.  The word liminal means threshold and our rituals are designed to move us across these thresholds, through the ambiguities and disorientation that occurs within a system when things change.  When a child is born or a family member dies or two families are formally joined together our relationships become restructured and rearranged.  These rituals structure and mark the important rearrangements in the life of a family.

I wonder whether our annual holiday gatherings, our seasonal celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas, are actually miniature versions of those major gatherings that are such a source of tension and anxiety.  Demographically, the Americans present in this room this morning tend to live in small or very small family units.  We tend to have limited and rather scheduled contact with relatives outside our immediate family.  And, we tend to have scheduled lives and set routines.  And then the Holiday season comes along and all of our schedules – family, work, social, rest, sleep – go haywire.  Many families spend way more time with each other.  There is often a massive rearrangement of our lives and our roles.  And, anthropologically speaking, we mark these rearrangements with ritualized acts of feasting, libations, gift exchanging, decorating, and even vestments.  “Don we now our gay apparel.”

So, it’s my theory that we approach each December as a smaller and simpler version of how we approach major life passages.  It’s my theory that the anxieties raised by changing family roles and relationships get psychologically projected onto worries about presents, decorations, food, and so on because we’re attempting to devise a ritual for moving us across a threshold and through complex rearrangements.

Now, that’s just my social scientific theory, but the humor website The Onion recently ran an article that humorously hints that this theory may just have some element of truth to it.  The headline of the article was “Siblings Gather Around PowerPoint to Discuss Off-Limit Topics for Thanksgiving.”

Delmar, NY – In an effort to ensure a smooth and enjoyable dinner with their relatives, siblings Jason, Alyssa, and Leslie Conroy reportedly sat down together Tuesday evening for a PowerPoint presentation covering all of the conversation topics that will be off-limits during the family’s Thanksgiving gathering…  The siblings’ 48-slide presentation… reportedly featured pie charts breaking down the state and national voting histories of extended family members as well as Venn diagrams illustrating what each relative knows about their father’s upcoming surgery.

I think that if you asked most people what they wanted for the holidays, they would tell you that they want less stress, less chaos and busyness, more quiet, more peace, more time spent in enjoyable ways.  They would tell you that they want less extravagant gifts and a few simple family rituals.  There is a gulf between how we say we want to live and how we actually live.  This is true for so many aspects of our lives.  There is a gulf between how we say we want to spend our time and how we actually spend our time.  There is a gulf between how we say we want to spend our money and how we actually spend our money.  There is even, as I pointed out in sermon I gave quite a long time ago, a gulf between how most Americans say they want to die and how Americans actually die.  There is this major cognitive dissonance between how we say we want to live and how we actually live.  It’s like what Paul said.  “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

The children’s book I selected for this morning, I’m in Charge of Celebrations by Byrd Baylor, was chosen for a reason. [My thanks goes to Rev. Judith Cady who used this book for the children’s story when I preached at All Souls a few weeks ago.]  “How could I possibly be lonely?” asks the narrator.  “I’m in charge of celebrations.”  The girl in the story is a model Unitarian Universalist.  She’s creative.  She creates her own meaning, develops her own traditions, practices her faith in a way that is aligned with what she most cherishes and values.  However, when she announces, “Last year I had 108 celebrations,” I wondered whether she was truly in charge of celebrations, or whether the celebrations were in charge of her.

I wonder it would take for each of us to be able to say, “I am in charge of celebrations.”  Here are a couple of pointers, a couple of ideas that I invite you to consider.

First, when I meet with couples who are planning a wedding, one of things I tell them is that while they may have created an elaborate mental picture of how the celebration will go, they’re the only ones who have this mental picture of how it is supposed to go.  If something doesn’t happen exactly that way, they may notice, but nobody else will notice because it wasn’t a part of their expectations to begin with.  Don’t assume that everyone else has the same expectations that you do.

Second, say no.  You are allowed to turn down invitations.  You are allowed to prioritize your activities and avoid the ones that are less important to you.  If anyone has a problem with that, just tell them your minister said so.

Third, you do not always have to reciprocate.  This is hard for some people to accept.  But different people do express care in different ways.  If someone brings you cookies, you don’t need to go to your kitchen and whip up a bunch of brownies in order to reciprocate.  You can just thank you and write a gracious thank you card.  Trust that they are acting out what they need to do to make the holidays feel good for them.  But, be self-differentiated.  Be yourself.

Fourth, remember the difference between” zip codes” and “rip cords.”  Our rip cords, “our life-lines, these days as always, are our inner quiet, the love we exchange, and our efforts to make the world more whole.”

Fifth, get out of yourself.  Kick off the season by going to volunteer at Harvesters, as 64 of our congregants did last Saturday.  Or adopt a family.  Or participate in a winter coat drive.  Or rake leaves for an elderly neighbor.  Doing this helps to keep other things in perspective.

And, sixth and finally, remember that you are in charge of celebrations and not the other way around.  That’s a very Unitarian Universalist way of thinking.  There is no fixed ritual that must be performed.  So sayeth your minister.

Breathe.  All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.  Amen.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sermon: "Putting Away Childish Things" (Delivered 11-17-13)

From Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Cosmology,” in When I Was a Child I Read Books.

I want to pose [an] ancient question, one we seem to have set aside in the last few generations, for all the world as if we knew the answer to it.  What are we, after all, we human beings?  It has been usual for at least a century and a half to think of human beings as primates, as we surely are, who developed certain traits that eventuated in a capacity for complex social life…

At present, evolution is taken to have been propelled, in us as in all life, by something called genetic “selfishness,” which its proponents always assure us does not mean selfishness in the ordinary sense of the word, but which, extrapolated and applied, means this more or less exactly…

The embrace of essential beastliness, made scientific and respectable by a reading of Darwin that may or may not have done justice to his intentions, thrilled and enthralled Western thought in certain quarters and in fact still does enthrall persons and groups who experience life in society as a barely tolerable constraint on a kind of freedom they consider a birthright.  This freedom appears to have most of the essential features of a war of each against all, whether a hot war that compels them to go armed to Starbucks or to church or a cold war that makes a virtue of craftiness and guile, the ability to loot and wreck the national economy without getting caught…

All this came up recently in a writing class when I asked the students to describe their assumptions about human motivation.  It became clear that a number of them took for granted that the substratum of all behavior was self-interest, this understood as gratification of certain of those same uncountenanced impulses Freud had in mind.  Now, my students are excellent, large-spirited people, really exemplary.  There is no reason to suppose that either reflection or experience would have led them to so dark a view of their kind.  But this notion of human nature was taught to them as true and, good students that most of them are, they have accepted as true.  And it has had significant consequences for their fiction.  Specifically, characters they understand to be outside the effective range of social formation tend to gratify uncountenanced impulses with a high degree of predictability.  And, true to the Freudian paradigm, highly socialized, which is to say middle-class, characters tend to dwell in the moral twilight of essentially contentless decency, which they frequently depart from in search of a truer self.

At either end of this very short spectrum we find persons understood as having radically limited self-awareness, a minimum of meaningful inwardness, [and] very little real ability to choose or appraise their actions.  In other words, they have little true individuality – that is, character.

Our daughter Lydia has come into the age where few activities are as exciting as taking things down off the shelves, or out of cabinets, or out of boxes.  Turn your back for a moment and she’s standing in front of a bookshelf with a growing pile of books by her feet.  Or the kitchen floor is covered with pots and pans.  Or the box of toys has been emptied in the middle of the living room with plastic and plush playthings scattered all about.

One night, before going to bed, I surveyed the mess of toys in the living room and said to myself, “It’s time to put away childish things.”  And, then I said to myself, “Isn’t that a verse from the Bible?”  And, indeed, it was.

The line comes from the New Testament, from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  This morning I’m going to teach a little bit about this passage, and then I’m going to ask that we apply this teaching to our own lives and see whether or not “putting away childish things” is a spiritual idea that might speak to our lives here and now.

1 Corinthians is one of 21 letters sent by Paul or others to communities of Jesus’ followers around the ancient Mediterranean world.  These letters do many things.  They offer encouragement.  They clarify teachings.  They offer instruction.  And, they attempt to reconcile disputes and disagreements.  The letters are challenging for several reasons.  For one thing, most of the time we only get to read one side of the conversation.  We are told the answers, but we don’t always know the questions.  For another thing, sometimes the answers seem unclear or convoluted.  And, for a third thing, in our Unitarian Universalist tradition we accept the distinct possibility that Paul may be wrong and that the advice he gives may be bad advice.

In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul spends a lot of time writing about the values of different spiritual gifts, the different abilities of the different people who constitute the religious community.  Some of these spiritual gifts will sound very foreign to some of us.  Paul describes the gift of wise speech, the gift of being able to teach knowledge, the gift of ecstatic speech or speaking in tongues, the gift of being able to interpret another’s ecstatic speech, the gift of healing, the gift of performing other sorts of miracles, the gift of dreaming visions, and the gift of discernment between true spirits and false.  This is a pretty wild community he’s describing.  And, we can infer from Paul’s letter that there is an authority struggle taking place in this community.  Whose gifts are more important?  Whose gifts give them authority over others?  Should the community at Corinth follow the one who can speak in tongues or the one who dreams the visions?

In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul offers a solution to this impasse, writing, "And I will show you a still more excellent way."  “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”  The community should be led by love.
What follows is a passage that you may be familiar with because it is a passage that is frequently read at weddings.  “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”  It’s kind of interesting that one of the most common passages read at weddings is actually a passage about resolving disputes about ecclesiastical authority.  How romantic!  [Following the service, a member of the congregation told me that when she and her sister fought as children, their mother made them read 1 Corinthians 13 to each other until they made up!]

What comes next is, I think, one of the most gorgeous passages ever written, “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

1 Corinthians 13 seems to say that the person who embodies love possesses a core spiritual gift.  Love leads to good relationships with others.  And, love will lead us in the direction of wholeness rather than partiality.

So, that’s pretty much what I want to say about the first epistle to the Corinthians.  Now, I want to talk about putting away childish things.  Let me tell you what this phrase doesn’t mean to me.  Putting away childish things doesn’t mean doing away with laughter or doing away with wonder or doing away with playfulness or doing away with lighthearted silliness.  Let me be clear, putting away childish things does not mean having to adopt some kind of ultra-serious, stern, and humorless demeanor.  I’m not talking about becoming joyless.

The other day I actually asked a group of my colleagues this question:  “You know that passage in First Corinthians chapter 13 about putting away childish things?” I asked.  “What sorts of childish things can you think of that should be put away?”  The responses I received were fascinating:

“The need for immediate gratification.”

“Taking yourself too seriously.”

“Fear of difference.”

“Blaming behavior.”

“Cliquish behavior.”

“Theological trivialities.”

“The belief that I occupy the center of the universe.”

I thought these responses were pretty interesting.  They were especially interesting to me for two reasons.  One reason was that I could totally imagine the ancient church of Corinth, as they fought with each other over whose spiritual gifts were superior, engaging in some of those behaviors that my colleagues identified as childish.  I could imagine cliquish behavior by those with the power to heal or those with the ability speak in tongues.  I could imagine the visionary prophets taking themselves far too seriously.  I could imagine these people having disputes over theological trivialities.

The other thing that I found really interesting is that all of these childish things have to do with being focused on the partial at the expense of the complete.  Fear of difference and cliquishness are behaviors that elevate the partial over the complete; these behaviors fail to imagine the whole of humankind as complete.  Desiring immediate gratification can be described as a failure to see the completeness of time, as if right now is the only time that matters.  Theological trivialities miss the forest for the trees.  Blaming is a failure to see one’s own relatedness, one’s own connectedness, to all.  “When the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.”

I think my colleague who wrote about putting away the childish idea “that I occupy the center of the universe” came closest to that idea of the difference between knowing in part and knowing fully.  Copernicus and Galileo taught us not to see ourselves as existing at the center of the solar system.  Paul, at least in this particular passage, seems to be teaching the radical idea that other people exist, and that they matter.  Love decenters us from the idea that we are the center of the universe.

My colleague’s comment about the childish notion of believing that you are the center of the universe reminded me of something that the author David Foster Wallace once wrote.  He wrote, “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of.”

It also reminds me of what Marilynne Robinson writes in her essay “Cosmology.”  In this essay she takes issue with overly simplistic, overly deterministic concepts of human nature.  She rejects the idea, say, that all human behavior can be explained by virtue of genetic selfishness or Freudian id, or what have you.  (She would also reject David Foster Wallace’s assertion that self-centeredness is our hard-wired, default setting.)  She rejects the one dimensional motivations that her students ascribe to their characters.  She rejects these ideas because they mistake the part for the whole.  Their ideas about how human beings exist in the world are incredibly partial; they’re incomplete.

I come back to the image of our daughter in the center of the galaxy of our living room, in the center of a constellation of toys, in the center of her own universe.  Developmentally, this extreme self-centeredness is completely appropriate.  She’s only one year old, after all.  At some point, though, this narcissism will no longer be socially acceptable, but that’s still a ways off.  We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.  At some point, my poor child will probably resent being used as a sermon illustration, but that’s still a ways off, too.

So for us, what would it mean to put away childish things?  I leave it up to you to ask of yourself, when have you made yourself the center of your own universe?  When have you focused on the partial at the expense of the complete?  What are we, after all, we human beings?

Let us be defined, not by self-interest, but by a love that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, that does not insist on its own way.  May we seek to know fully just as we seek to be fully known.  Amen.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Thoughts on Two Services vs. One Service

At its most recent meeting, the SMUUCh Board of Trustees discussed how well the two-service Sunday format was or wasn’t working.  Several members of the Board reported hearing from multiple members of the church who preferred a one-service format.  On the recent Worship & Music survey, 10 percent of survey participants used the survey to state their preference for a single service on Sunday mornings.  I prepared a memo (excerpted below) sharing my thoughts on two services.

History of Two Services
In the spring of the 2004, the Board of Trustees convened a task force to explore moving to two services.  Worship service attendance was growing and some Sundays felt crowded in Fellowship Hall at our old 87th Street property.  The task force received congregational input, held feedback sessions, met with the Minister and Director of Religious Education, and recommended a two service format with worship services at 9:00 and 11:15 with religious education for children and adults and a coffee hour between the services.  In September 2004 we launched a two-service Sunday morning format.  This schedule proved more popular in theory than in practice.  Over the next several years we changed our Sunday morning schedule every single year.  During this time we experimented with:

·         Service times at 9:00, 9:15, 9:30, or 10:00 and 11:00, 11:15, or 11:30
·         Children’s RE between the two services or during both services or a format that offered a more “traditional” Sunday school classroom experience during one service and an alternative activity during the other service.
·         Adult Religious Education experiences (including forums) before the first service, between the two services, after the second service, and/or concurrent with one or both services.
·         Having the choir sing mainly at one service, or alternate between singing at the early and late services, or sing at both services.
·         Returning to one service during the summer or remaining at two services through the summer.

Around 2010 (I think) we settled on a schedule that worked better than any we had previously tried.  The 9:30 and 11:15 service times produced the most balanced attendance.  A 45 minute fellowship hour allowed plenty of time for visiting.  Staffed toddler and preschool classes provided consistency for our youngest ones at both services.

Move to Pflumm
On 10/28/12 we held our first worship service at 9400 Pflumm.  It was universally assumed that we would return to one service in our new church home.  (Later, in conversations with experienced senior ministers in our movement it was suggested to me that returning to one service may have been a mistake.)  From the first day in our new building, the sanctuary felt comfortably (and often uncomfortably) crowded.  Most Sundays some families were unable to sit together, a large group stood in the foyer waiting for the children to depart for their classes, and people sat on the back bleachers or stood for the duration of the service.

As early as the end of the very first service in our new building I began to hear speculative conversations about moving to two services.  The majority of these conversations began, “I know we’re going to have to move to two services eventually, but I hope we can put it off for as long as possible.”  In January 2013, after two months worshipping in the new space, the executive committee and board discussed the possibility of moving to two services in the early spring.  I weighed two options: 

(1)   Move to two services for the months of March, April, and May, then return to one service for the summer months, then move back to two services in the late summer.
(2)   Remain at one service for the rest of the church year and move to a two service schedule in the late summer.

With the exception of holding two services on Easter Sunday 2013, I made the decision to wait until August 2013 to launch a two service format.

What do the numbers say?
There are currently 237 seats in the Sanctuary:  73 in the west section closest to the stage, 84 in the center section, 54 in the east section closest to the piano, 10 along the east wall, and 16 on the bleachers in the back of the room.  Conventional wisdom says that when a sanctuary is 75% to 80% full it begins to feel crowded and it is time to begin planning to add an additional service.  That would mean that when our attendance is 177 to 190 adults, the sanctuary will feel crowded.

The two service format began on August 4, 2013.  We have had an adult attendance of 180 or higher at 12 of the 15 worship services since moving to two services.

With approximately 50 children present at the beginning of the worship service, if we moved back to one service we would start nearly every worship service with every seat taken and some congregants having to stand.  After the children left, the service would be attended at a level at which the numbers would indicate that it is time to start planning to add a second service.

Other Considerations
While several people have shared that they do not like the two service format, having one full service was unpopular or uncomfortable for some people.  Keeping the fragrance free section free of fragrances proved to be a challenge with a full sanctuary.  Congregants who use wheelchairs, walkers, or who are less steady on their feet have a tougher time navigating a full sanctuary.  Families with young children appreciate a choice of service times as they are working around napping and feeding schedules.  Many find it preferable to be able to choose between an early and a late service.

It is true that two services require more volunteer ushers, vergers, greeters, and hospitality hosts.  It also requires more from our choir members and volunteer musicians.  The other side of this coin is that it provides more volunteer opportunities.  Some evangelical churches set an “Attend One, Serve One” expectation where members attend one worship service and fill a volunteer role at the second service.  Some members who volunteer in the religious education program say that they are less likely to volunteer if they cannot also attend the worship service that morning.

Attendance has not been high enough this fall to make returning to one service impossible.  If we returned to one service, we would all fit.  However, if we returned to one service we would find ourselves back at a size at which we should begin planning to two services.

If it was our goal to stay at our current size, I would recommend returning to one service.  If it is our goal to grow, we should probably stick with the two service format.  We have estimated that we need to grow at an annual rate of least 10% to succeed in the new building.  We may need to grow even more quickly than that.  While we may be able to barely fit our current attendance numbers in a single service, if our attendance were to increase by 15% or 20% we simply wouldn’t fit in a single service.  Put another way, would a worship service with 80 feel less empty with 96?  Would a service with 100 feel more lively with 120?  Are we better served trying to fill the sanctuary by decreasing the number of services or by growing our worship services by inviting our friends and the larger community to come worship with us?

More Resources
The UUA has provided this helpful and thoughtful guide for adding additional worship services.

This Evangelical Christian article on multiple services is also a helpful resource (although a lot of other stuff on this site is icky.)

Monday, November 04, 2013

Sermon: "Tribal Unitarian Universalism" (Delivered 11-3-13)

Call to Worship
I’m going to call us to worship this morning with a story about identity.  I hope you find it funny and receive it in the playful spirit in which it is offered.

It’s the story of going to get a flaming chalice tattoo.

I first realized I wanted a flaming chalice tattoo when I was eighteen.  I wasn’t an impulsive teenager though, and I told myself, “It is best to wait.  In a couple of years, if I still want one then I can get one.  What’s the rush?”  A few years later the desire was still strong, even stronger in fact.  I told myself, “It is best to wait.  In a couple of years, if I still want one then I can get one.”

Four years later, the desire remained.  It had only become stronger.  I was thinking about a tattoo when an old Pearl Jam song came on the radio, the one in which Eddie Vedder sings the word “tattoo” in his indecipherable grungy growl.  I looked over and there was a copy of the order of service with a chalice on the cover on my car’s passenger seat.  It was a sign.

It was time.  Order of service in hand, I entered the tattoo parlor and told the tattoo artist, “This is what I want.”

We’re underway when the tattoo artist begins to talk about how the chalice is cool magical symbol of medieval hermetic alchemy.  “No, it’s not,” I wanted to scream, but then I remembered that he was the one with the needle gun.

Ten minutes later I was a marked member of the Unitarian Universalist tribe.

What constitutes a Unitarian Universalist identity?  What makes us distinctive?  Certainly not chalice tattoos, but then what is the giveaway?  What is the tell? 

How do any of us carry our identities?  Are they etched into our skin?  Are they etched into the silent recesses of our hearts, the marrow of our being?

Let us embark on a journey of discovery this morning.  Let us worship together.

This morning’s reading is by Sharon Hwang Colligan, who was raised Unitarian Universalist and was an active leader in UU Youth and Young Adult programming at the national level.  She is the author of an essay entitled, Children of Different Tribe: UU Young AdultDevelopmental Issues.  Her essay is part anthropology, part psychology, and part mystical shamanic vision.  It describes her experience of growing up UU and transitioning into adulthood.  Her piece begins with a list of 35 formative stories that Unitarian Universalist children and youth were never told.  I’ve adapted her list into a free verse poem.

There are formative stories we were never told.

We were never told that God is an old white man in the sky.

We were never told that the world is a battle between good and evil, or that the spirit is higher and better than the flesh.  We were never told that the basic animal nature of man is wrong and we must rise above it.

“You are going to hell.” “You are unworthy.” “God is angry.” “God doesn’t love you.” “God will punish you.”  We were never told these things.

We can’t even imagine what it would mean to fear God.

Those formative stories about sex – Sex is a sin. Masturbation is a sin.  Homosexuality is a sin. – We were never told those stories, either.  And we were never told not to discuss sex, religion, or politics in nice company.

We were never told that people are born sinful.

We were never told that pagan religions, atheism, agnosticism, or other churches are undesirable.

We didn’t learn to think that there is only one right religion. 
Or that Christianity is better than other religions. 
Or that The Bible is better than other good books.

We were never told that obedience is a virtue. 

For us, unquestioning faith is an oxymoron.

Nobody ever told us that UUism isn’t a real religion, or that UUism is a religion for dry rationalists. 

Nobody ever told us that UUism does not offer powerful, ecstatic religious experience, because it did and it does.

And we were not taught that our upbringing was unusual; we were not taught that any of this was different from what other kids learn.

But our Youth know that they are different.  I’m here to say: the reason we feel we are different is because we are different. Our formative experiences — of childhood, of youth, of spiritual transformation — are profoundly different than those of the dominant culture. We are Children of a Different Tribe.

This morning’s message is about identity and culture.  Each of us comes here self-defining, wearing the identities that we claim for ourselves.  We may define ourselves according to our familial relationships.  We are mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother, grandparent, grandchild.  We are husband, wife, spouse, partner.  We call ourselves friend, companion, advocate, and helper.  We claim identities of race, ethnicity, heritage, gender, and sexual orientation.  Our identities can relate to our work, to our role, to our passions and interests.  We may identify with theological labels – theist, atheist, humanist, agnostic, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, pagan, freethinker, mystic – and some of us with more than one theological label.  We call ourselves Unitarian Universalists.

As a religious movement that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we remind ourselves that our identities contain an element of the sacred.  As a religious movement that promotes justice and equity in human relations, we work for a world where no person is excluded or oppressed on the basis of their identities.  When we talk about our identities, we are talking about something significant and personal.  They are precious things, these identities, and we should handle them with care.  As one of the songs of Unitarian Universalist youth and young adult groups puts it, “How could anyone ever tell you that you’re anything less than beautiful?  How could anyone ever tell you that you’re less than whole?  How could anyone fail to notice that your loving is a miracle?  How deeply you’re connected to my soul.”

This morning I’m going to try to talk about something I’m going to refer to as tribal Unitarian Universalism.  It’s an idea that may seem a little strange.  One reason it may seem strange is that we are wary of tribalism as the word is sometimes used.  It is a word that often has negative connotations.  When he ran for Unitarian Universalist Association President, Peter Morales’ stump speech proclaimed,

We live in a new world, a world in which once isolated religious traditions are in constant contact. We desperately need new religion for a new world. The old religions lead to tribalism, violence, suspicion, hatred, and oppression. We need a religion that transcends divisions, religion that unites enemies, religion that points to a new future that includes everyone.

Identities are important to us and identities can be used to divide us.  Frequently, Peter Morales has been known to quote the Latino poet Alberto Blanco, who wrote,

But if I have to belong to some tribe
-- I tell myself --
make it a large tribe,
make it a strong tribe,
one in which nobody is left out,
in which everybody,
for once and for all
has a God-given place.

Kurt Vonnegut, who also was a Unitarian Universalist (well, sort of) came up with a word in his novel Cat’s Cradle to poke fun at the tribal behaviors of human beings.  The word he invented was granfalloon.  Vonnegut defined a granfalloon as a proud and meaningless association of human beings.  A granfalloon is a group of people who share a superficial connection lacking in depth and meaningfulness.

We may associate tribalism with narrowness, closed-mindedness, persistent violence, and fear of difference.  We would prefer to think of ourselves as worldly, cosmopolitan, enlightened, and universalist.  Tribalism seems exclusive and we prefer to think of ourselves as inclusively post-tribal.

Another reason it may be strange to talk about tribal Unitarian Universalism is that we tend to value the ways we are different rather than the ways we are alike.  We think our differences are fascinating; similarities can seem stifling.  We affirm our differences by saying we need not think alike to love alike.  We proudly boast that you can ask a group of ten Unitarian Universalists what they think, and you’re likely to get twelve different opinions.
But Sharon Hwang Colligan writes,

I was always told growing up is that UUs have [next to] nothing in common.  I heard over and over again about how we are so incredibly diverse. There is no way of predicting what you will find from one congregation to the next. Now again, there is a grain of truth to that; but what that idea does is it’s a thought-stopper: it stops us from ever even thinking about what we are like as a people.

So I grew up thinking I could assume I had nothing in common with UUs in other places. Then I went to work at the UUA. They have a weekly chapel service there, a different minister from around the continent every week. I was really surprised, because week after week I saw the same thing: they all sounded like they had grown up in the same family. I mean, the same mannerisms, the same way of making jokes, pretty much the same general attitude and character. I thought, how do they do that?

Over the years I’ve gone around the country and visited lots of congregations. And you know, whether they’re in Rhode Island or Texas, whether they quote the Bible or the Buddha, you go in there, and they all pretty much look and act like Unitarians. It’s really recognizable.”

So, what does it mean to look and act like a Unitarian?  What, exactly, is so recognizable?  What do you think she’s talking about?  Unfortunately, she doesn’t definitively state what is so recognizable.  I’ve been told that culture is like an iceberg.  Ten percent is visible and ninety percent lies hidden beneath the surface.

But let’s ponder this question of what defines a Unitarian Universalist identity.  Maybe it is about holding certain beliefs or certain patterns of thought that go through our minds.  Or, maybe it’s not about beliefs or thoughts at all.  Maybe being a Unitarian Universalist means having a particular set of values.  Or, maybe a Unitarian Universalist identity is about community and commitment.  Maybe it is about participating in a group of people who call themselves UU or pledging your commitment to such a group.

In the late summer I taught an adult religious education class on Unitarian Universalist Identity and I began the class by handing out a checklist of different activities.  I then asked the members of the class which ones they thought were absolutely necessary to be an “official” Unitarian Universalist.  I’m going to read you the list and let you keep track of which you think are necessary in order to be a UU.  You might be a UU if you:

            Signed the membership book of a UU church
            Attend UU worship services and/or religious education classes
            Attend other events and programs in the congregation
Support social justice issues that UUs have historically supported
            Own your own chalice
            Own a copy of the UU hymnal
            Have read “A Chosen Faith”
            Have memorized the “Love is the doctrine…” affirmation
            Have memorized the Seven Principles
            Have memorized “Spirit of Life”
            Have made a pilgrimage to UU historical sites in Boston
            Attend General Assembly or other UU leadership events
            Attend a UU summer camp
            Dressed as a UU historical figure for Halloween
            Own chalice jewelry or a UU T-shirt
            Take the “Building Your Own Theology” class
            Have a chalice tattoo
So, is a UU identity about having certain thoughts or values?  Is it about belonging to community?  Is it more about a certain set of behaviors?  Is it all or some or none of these?

Sharon Hwang Colligan’s fascinating and troubling essay is about one particular aspect of Unitarian Universalist identity.  In Children of a Different Tribe she writes about the powerful and transformational culture of UU religious education and youth programming and about the ways that culture is challenged as UUs move into adulthood.  Colligan is especially interested the tribal identities of birthright Unitarian Universalists, UUs who grew up with a UU identity and with the cultural values that youth programming imparts.

One of the interesting things that Sharon Hwang Colligan points out is that UU culture is disrupted by the fact that most UU children, obviously, have the identity of having grown up UU whereas 90% percent of UU adults were not raised UU.  In our congregation, located in a transient suburb of a metropolitan area that has not historically had a major UU presence, I estimate that only two percent of us grew up UU.  Let me put this issue that Colligan raises as starkly as I can.  Growing up UU provides you with a formative cultural experience that powerfully and permanently shapes your identity.  Ninety percent of UU adults did not grow up UU.

Is anyone feeling excluded here?  Is this a problem?  If so, what should be done about it?  Here is what I’m not proposing.  I’m not proposing that we create a remedial program for adult UU converts and send you through the Coming of Age program and hold adult lock-ins where you stay up late playing sardines and sleep on the floor.  But I’m not proposing that we go to the other extreme either and declare that there is no such thing as cultural Unitarian Universalism, that we are a post-tribal movement, and just sort of accept that UUs are so diverse that they have nothing in common.  That is a thought-stopper.

Here is what I am proposing:  I’m proposing that we build bridges between our divisions and manifest a generous curiosity about each other and about the culture of our faith.  For newer UUs, that might mean listening to the formative stories and experiences of born and bred UUs.  For birthright UUs that might mean taking the time to listen as newer UUs talk about the formative stories that they were told.  For all of us it might mean seeking out ways to be less isolated and more in communion with our larger movement.

Colligan writes that when the children of a different tribe reminisce about their cultural experience of having grown up UU, they talk about being in an environment marked by realness, honesty, friendship, and truth.  I might unpack those just a bit.

Realness is the same thing as authenticity.  It is the ability to be open with others without armor or defenses.  It is the result of having a safe environment, a community that sings the “How can anyone ever tell you, you are anything less than beautiful?” song to each other.

Honesty is an inner commitment to follow the dictates of conscience.  It is made possible only when acceptance is assured.

Friendship is a warm embrace of one another.  It is the embodiment of welcoming and acceptance.

Truth is a method of exploration.  It sees unquestioning faith as an oxymoron.  It holds that revelation is not sealed and that our understanding is always evolving.

Let us be mindful of the culture we are called to create, the faith identities we are called to develop, and the inclusive, large tribe we’re called to become.  Let us seek to understand each other and grow in our understanding of our identities.