Monday, October 28, 2013

Homily: "The Honey Crisp Apple Communion" (Delivered 10-27-13)

Opening Words

“Welcome Morning”
by Anne Sexton

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry "hello there, Anne"
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn't shared, I've heard,
dies young.


Responsive Reading

“The Peace of Autumn”
by Rabindranath Tagore

Today the peace of Autumn pervades the world.

In the radiant noon, silent and motionless, the wide stillness rests like a tired bird.

Spreading over the deserted fields to all horizons its wings of golden green.

Today the thin thread of the river flows without song, leaving no mark on its sandy banks.

The many distant villages bask in the sun with eyes closed in idle
and languid slumber.

In the stillness I hear in every blade of grass,

In every speck of dust, in every part of my own body, in the
visible and invisible worlds,

In the planets, the sun, and the stars, the joyous dance of the atoms
through endless time.


Homily
The title of this morning’s service is “The Honey Crisp Apple Communion.”  I thought about that title, especially the word “communion,” and about what that word means to me.  I want to reflect with you a bit on the ritual of communion.  You very well may have had your own experiences of and associations with communion.  But, I’d like to share my own associations from a Unitarian Universalist perspective.

I grew up attending First Parish Church, Unitarian Universalist, in Wayland, Massachusetts.  The church of my childhood celebrated communion once per year, sort of.  On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, during the service, loaves of bread were passed around the sanctuary and the worshipping congregants were invited to tear off hunks and eat.  The bread was perfect, delicious.  The serving of it was inelegant, even haphazard.  There was never any wine.  Not even grape juice.  I’m not even sure it was called communion.  But it felt like communion.

As a part of my church’s youth group, one year we decided to serve communion during our high school youth service, sort of.  It was ice cream communion.  Out we came, carrying trays overflowing with small bowls of ice cream.  I don’t know if there was much theological significance to our invented ritual, except to affirm that life had a sweetness and to insist that joy was important.

While on the subject of communion, I might say a few words about my experience with communion in a Christian setting.  Over the years, having had the opportunity to visit various Christian houses of worship, as well as gatherings of Unitarian Universalists in which communion of bread and wine was served, I’ve gladly taken communion whenever invited to do so.  If you asked me why, my answer would probably have with an openness to experience more than a logically thought through theological defense.  It is not something I need to defend, but allow me to also say that on a relational level, my best understanding of the Christian spirit is that it would never turn anyone away from the table.  On a more theological level, I’m okay with Jesus and I consider communion to be a pure expression of universalism.  On the rare occasion that I’ve attended a Christian congregation where they announce that communion is restricted to only certain classes of people, I’ve often considered just going up anyways, but find myself sitting there feeling angry and excluded.  I stew in the pew.  How rude to eat in front of your guests!

All across the Unitarian Universalist movement the communion that is most routinely celebrated takes on a distinctly Unitarian Universalist form.  Along with most other UU churches, in the spring our congregation holds a ritual called the Flower Communion.  The Flower Communion had its origins in the Unitarian movement in the Czech Republic and in a desire to re-enchant an excessively rational tradition by making space for metaphor and ritual.  In the Flower Communion, each person brings a flower to church.  The flowers are gathered in a resplendent, bounteous bouquet.  Then, everyone receives a flower from the bouquet, different from the flower they brought.

The Flower Communion ritual is distinctly Unitarian Universalist in that the uniqueness of the atomic individual is preserved throughout.  In the Christian bread and wine communion, there is an aspect to the ritual that is concerned with unity and oneness.  Jesus or the church community becomes a part of us.  However, in the Flower Communion, the flowers keep their distinctness.  (If you bring an iris, it stays an iris.  It doesn’t change into a rose.  We don’t believe in flower transubstantiation.)  There may be an occasional tangling of stems, but individual uniqueness is preserved.

UU minister Scotty McLennan serves in an ecumenical and interfaith capacity as the Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University in Palo Alto.  In a sermon on communion, he quoted a passage from J.D. Salinger’s short novel Franny & Zooey.   This passage says something very perceptive about the experience of communion.  At this point in the story, Franny is exploring Christianity and trying to memorize a specific prayer.  Zooey recommends a different approach to the religious life:

I'll tell you one thing, Franny. One thing I know. And don't get upset. But if it's the religious life you want, you ought to know that you're missing out on every single religious action that's going on around this house. You don't even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup, which is the only kind of chicken soup Bessie ever brings anybody around this madhouse. So just tell me, buddy. Even if you went out and searched the whole world for a master, some guru, some holy man, to tell you how to say your Jesus prayer properly, what good would it do you? How [the heck]... are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man when you see one if you don't even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it's right in front of your nose?

Anne Sexton’s poem, “Welcome Morning,” is about realizing the consecration of life in front of her:  each morning a chapel of eggs, each morning a trinity of spoon, plate, and cup forming a godhead on the table, each morning a libation of coffee, each morning the holy vestment of the Cannon towel.  Sexton describes a mysticism of the ordinary that allows her to feel present, grateful, and joyful.

The origins of the Honey Crisp Apple Communion began two years ago when a certain member of this congregation waxed ecstatic and rhapsodic about the delicious perfection of the Honey Crisp Apples that had just come into season.  His words struck me as present, grateful, and joyful.

So I imagined this odd little communion ritual, offering a slice of autumnal perfection to all in the congregation.  Asking us to be present to the sweetness of now.  Asking us to be grateful and joyful for the peace of autumn that pervades the world.

At our last Worship Team meeting I asked members of the team to share what this season evoked for them.  The sharing was vivid and crisp.  Those on the team talked about the blazing reds and yellows of fall, the taste of pumpkin and cider, the warmth of sweaters and fleece, and the joyful traditions of this season.

Then the sharing turned.  We spoke of our awareness of the growing darkness, awareness of light and life retreating.  We spoke of family members and friends in the autumn of their lives.  We were aware of transience and mortality.  It’s what Forrest Church meant by religion as is our dual response to being alive and having to die.

Hold this balance.  Be grateful and joyful and present in the sweetness of now.  Be present even as night increases and a chill appears over the horizon.  Let us consecrate this time.  The table is open.


Benediction
Scotty McLennan writes, “Communion is not just a matter of ingathering in unity. It should also nourish us for an outpouring of love in the world… After the people were gathered to break bread together, and then sent out to feed and clothe and comfort others.”  Go and do likewise.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sermon: "The Church Visible and Invisible" (Delivered 10-20-13)

Call to Worship
“Teach us to number our days,” wrote the Psalmist, “so that we may gain a wise heart.” (Ps. 90:12)

On a beautiful October afternoon in 2003, in the presence of the members of this congregation, and in the company of my family, mentors, and colleagues, I spoke my vows of ordination. 

There are all sorts of ways to number these days, to number these years.  I estimate that I’ve delivered more than 360 unique sermons from this pulpit.  That I’ve attended nearly one thousand evening meetings, classes, and events. 

Together we’ve lit and extinguished our chalice more than five hundred times and spoken our affirmation just as many.  We’ve sung “Spirit of Life” one hundred times, perhaps.  Dozens of times we’ve sung of letting our little lights shine, of breathing in peace and breathing out love, of roses in wintertime and blue boats home.  We may count these years in meals served, homeless persons housed, and thousands of dollars given to community organizations we support.  We may count these years in babies blessed, in beloved members eulogized, in new members welcomed or in members moved away.

How would we number our days with a wise heart?

In tears shed.  In laughter uproaring.  In friendships formed.  In forgiveness offered.  In courage found.  In hope renewed.

Let us number our days with a wise heart.  Come, let us worship together.


Reading
"The Moment" by Margaret Atwood

The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,

is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can't breathe.

No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round. 


Sermon
Of all the things that I am, one of the things I am is a church nerd.  I hope you’ll give me permission to begin this sermon by being a church nerd for just a minute or two.  Early in the congregational tradition in New England, the tradition that would become our Unitarian Universalist tradition, the ministers of all the churches of the Standing Order convened a synod and, in 1648, authored a document called the Cambridge Platform.  How many of you have ever heard of this document?  [2% of the congregation had.]  Has anyone actually read it?  [No hands were raised?]  Well, I think we have established my church nerd credentials.

The Cambridge Platform is not some obscure colonial text.  It is actually the blueprint for the way our UU churches are organized today.  It is our Magna Carta.  It is our Constitution.  It describes remarkably well how a church like ours actually functions today.  If you’re a cynic, you might be tempted to say, “That’s the problem with Unitarian Universalism.  They’re following a how-to manual written in 1648.”  But others would say that our folly comes from not having read the directions.

In any event, a decade ago the members of this congregation came together on a Sunday afternoon and ordained me (mostly) in the manner specified by the Cambridge Platform of 1648. [Chapter IX, 1-6]  As far as I can tell, this was the first ordination in the history of this congregation; it is certainly the only ordination that anyone remembers.  The text of the act of ordination stated that you were ordaining me, get this, “into the ministry of the liberal religious tradition and to the ministry of the Church Universal, catholic and invisible, from which none are excluded.”  What the heck does that mean, you ask?  It is actually language that comes from the Cambridge Platform. [Chapter II]

Let me explain what this means.  The word “catholic” appears in its small c form.  Not the large C of the Roman Catholic Church, but small c, meaning broad, inclusive, and liberal.  The authors of the Cambridge Platform thought in terms of the church particular, meaning the local congregation, and the church universal and catholic, consisting of all those who were saved.  This means something different to us now than it meant to the original authors of the Platform.  Just as the phrase “all men are created equal” once applied only to property-owning white males, now we understand that phrase much more broadly.  As Unitarian Universalists, we understand the church universal to include all.

Similarly, the authors of the Cambridge Platform distinguished between the church visible and the church invisible.  The visible church would be this, us, with our church sign, a building, a membership book, and nametags.  It’s all the visible things that we do as a congregation, all of our worship services, programs, activities, and justice work.  It’s all the outward signs of the church.  So, then what is the invisible church?  It’s not a church with bad marketing strategy or an inaccessible location.  The invisible church consists of people with inner faith.  That is really an imperfect description.  Evangelical Christianity would call it having a personal relationship with Jesus.  Buddhism might call it cultivating Buddha nature.  We might call it deepening in spirit or having one’s heart turned.  The Psalmist refers to it as gaining a wise heart.  If what I’m describing here is a bit vague, bear with me.  The point is that the invisible church may include people who are not a part of a visible church, and vice-versa.  This is a very humbling idea, this idea that the people who are a part of the visible church and the people whose hearts have been transformed are not necessarily the same people.  I think as Unitarian Universalists we understand the difference between the visible and the invisible church.  I think we all recognize the person who goes through all the motions of outward religiosity while not having experienced an inner transformation.  So, what does it mean to be ordained into the ministry of the church invisible?  I understand it as a warning against confusing outer markings for inner truths, against confusing symbols of status for worth.

When I first imagined what I might say this morning, my thoughts first went to all the things I might say about the visible church.  Ways in which the various programs and activities and ministries of the church have changed or grown or not over the past decade.  Which areas of church life have expanded and grown stronger and which have struggled.  I thought I might challenge us all to continue to support what’s going well, fix what’s not going as well, and be bolder and bigger and better than we are right now.

But then I read my ordination vows again and realized that this was not the message that I wanted to preach this morning.  I actually feel moved to speak instead about matters invisible, about those times in our lives when we have had an experience of the holy, about gaining a wise heart.

Have you ever had an experience of the holy?  My colleague in the Twin Cities, Rob Eller-Isaacs, told me that when he asks the members of the church he serves to talk about their experiences of the holy, people describe the experience of breathing their partner through labor, or holding their child for the first time, or of smoothing the forehead of a loved one as they breathe their last breath.  I think it is fair to say that the holy can be encountered in nature, in the sense of communing and feeling a radical oneness and unity in the presence of the natural world.  Marilynne Robinson describes an experience of the holy this way, “I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.”  The experience of love can be an experience of the holy.  The holy can be experienced during sex.  Various forms of human encounter – understanding and being understood, accepting and being accepted, healing and being healed – can be experienced as holy.  Working for justice can connect us with an experience of the holy.

Have you ever had an experience of the holy?  Moments that you recall that bring tears of joy to your eyes?  Moments of powerful and transformative connection?

There are certain experiences of the holy that can be experienced in the various ministries of the church.  I had such an experience with my high school youth group.  While the holy does not have to be experienced in church, what church can do and should and needs to do is to help our hearts to become open to the experience of the holy, to help us to be receptive to these moments.  And, what the church needs to do is to help us to reflect on these experiences.  What values are present in these experiences?  Finally, what the church needs to do is to help us to practice these values in our lives, to live lives that exemplify these values and that increase and magnify the presence of these values in the world.

Twelve months ago, just a couple of tired weeks before we held our very first worship service in this building, my wife and I welcomed our daughter into the world.  Holding her for the first time was definitely an experience of the holy for me.  In that moment I experienced more vulnerability than I had ever experienced in my life.  In that moment I experienced more unconditional love than I had ever experienced in my life.  The experience helped to make those values real to me.  The experience made me long to attune my life to those values in ways that surprised me.

I invite you to consider, to reflect upon, an experience of the holy in your own life.

I invite you to consider the values that were present when you had that experience.

If anyone in the congregation is courageous enough, I invite you share a value that you connected with your experience? [Members named love, peace, support, acceptance, awe, and caring, among others.]

Now ask yourself what commitments that experience inspired from you.  Consider what it would be like for the visible church to commit to expanding those values in the world, to teach us to practice those values more deeply, and to expect that we commit to making those values more present in our lives and in the world.

***

For the reading this morning, we heard the poem “The Moment” by Margaret Atwood.  It is a poem about developmental challenges.  It is a moment about reaching a certain place but then learning you still have a long way to go.  “It was always the other way round.”  As humans we figure out one stage of life and immediately are thrown headlong into the next stage.  Have you ever felt that way?  As soon as you’ve figured out how to crawl, it is time to learn to walk.  Just when you think you’ve got everything under control, it turns out not to be the case.  Just when you think you know all the answers, it turns out that you don’t know as much as you think you did.  Atwood’s poem teaches a lesson about humility.

As a minister I’ve had my share of learning opportunities over this past decade.  I started as minister here at the age of 25, after all.  The first challenge was how to come up with forty sermons in a year.  Then it was how to give the church what it requires but also have a fulfilling personal life.  That took a long time to figure out.  I had to learn how to be OK with not needing to be a part of everything that happens in the life of the church.  How to be OK with not having all the answers.  And how to accept my own imperfection.   I’m still working on that one.  I could go on and on.

As a congregation, we’ve had our share of learning opportunities and developmental challenges.  How to become more fully welcoming.  How to figure out a Sunday morning schedule that works.  How to do church as a portion of our membership has trended younger demographically.  How to be a credible partner in service work within our larger metropolitan area.  How to have good programs in a building that was small and inadequate, and now how to make our programs work in a building that is cavernous.  I could go on and on.

Out in the main entrance area there is a new plaque that now hangs.  It is fitting that this plaque was put up on the week of the one year anniversary of moving into this new building.  The plaque commemorates our building dedication ceremony last February, our dedication of this space to the values of love, truth, compassion, liberal faith, and social justice and to the goal of more fully creating a liberal religious presence in Johnson County.  The plaque tells us that the dedication of this building brings to fruition the congregation’s hopes and dreams, blending our history with a shining vision for the future of this free faith.

What developmental challenges do we face right now as a congregation?  Now that we’ve mostly figured out how to live in this new building and new location, I think our challenges are twofold.

Our first challenge is a challenge of inner depth.  The challenge is to articulate our experiences of the holy.  The challenge is to name the values present in those experiences, to put those values in front of everything we do, and to name the commitments those values engender.  The process of articulating those experiences of the holy and reflecting about what commitments they require us to make is a process for us to share together.

Our second challenge, I think, is to throw our church doors even more widely open.  I’m delighted for some of the events that are happening here in the next couple of weeks:  the speaker from Witness for Peace and community information session we’re hosting on the Affordable Care Act.  There is a need to announce our presence in the community in a bolder way.  There is also a need to look beyond ourselves.  The Cambridge Platform describes ways in which churches ought to relate to each other. [Chapter XV.] I think we need to be more connected in partnership and in counsel with other UU churches that are thriving and doing excellent work.

Margaret Atwood’s poem suggests that there will always be developmental challenges.  If we accept that, if we understand that there is always learning beyond our knowing, and journeying beyond our arriving, perhaps,

… Then will come the day when,
The trees will enclose us in their soft arms again,
the birds will speak once more
the towering cliffs will rise up, and
the air will refill our lungs as we breathe in peace and breath out love.

Visitor, they’ll say:
climb the hill, plant the flag, proclaim.
You belong.  You are found.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Sermon: "What Do We Do When Institutions Fail Us?" (Delivered 10-6-13)

Reading
The reading this morning comes from a chapter in the book When “Spiritual But not Religious” is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church by Lillian Daniel.  Lillian Daniel is a parish minister serving a United Church of Christ (UCC) congregation in the Chicago Suburbs.  She was also the keynote speaker at a national gathering of members of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association last June where she talked to us about the challenges that the new American religious landscape posed to us as ministers.  The reading comes from the chapter, “Things I Am Tired Of.”

I am tired of hearing people say stupid things in the name of [religion.]  I am tired of nutty, pistol-packing pastors who want to burn the Koran.  I am tired of televangelists who claim that natural disasters are the will of God…  I am tired of preachers who promise prosperity.  As grumpy as it sounds, I am even tired of Tim Tebow.

I am also tired of people who say they are spiritual but not religious.  I am tired of people who have one bad experience with a church and paint the whole of Christianity with that brush.  I am tired of celebrities who criticize the church for being patriarchal and homophobic but do nothing to support the churches that are not.  I am super tired of Anne Rice.

I am tired of people who say they want a church like mine but cannot be bothered to attend one.  And I am tired of people who criticize churches like mine [when they’ve never attended.]

So I resonate with the angry words from letters to the early church that criticize shallow believers with itchy ears…  I live in a society where stupid and simple spirituality always trumps the depth of a complex faith.  We are a people of itchy ears.

Perhaps I am really just tired of myself.  In criticizing others in their faith, I hardly live up to the best in my own faith… And this is why I can’t do this religion thing all by myself. This is why I need a community. 


Sermon
I begin this morning’s sermon by sharing a few statistics about the American religious landscape.  Here is what has happened, what is happening, to religious affiliation in the United States.  In just an eight year period, from 2004 to 2012, membership in the Presbyterian Church declined by 27%.  Membership in the United Church of Christ, the most progressive Christian denomination in America, declined by 26% in that same eight year period.  Episcopalians declined by 20%, Lutherans by 18%, and American Baptists by 13%.  The United Methodists declined by 7%.  Even the Southern Baptists shrunk, but only by 0.7%.  In addition, all four major branches of Judaism have declined.  Evangelical Christianity, which was only so recently in its ascendance, has begun to decline as well.

Not every religious group has declined.  In this same eight year period, Catholicism grew by two and a half percent.  And Mormons, Pentecostals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses grew by more than ten percent.

In this same eight year period, membership in the churches of the Unitarian Universalist Association increased by a little less than 2%, not as good as the Mormons but not as bad as the Presbyterians and Lutherans.  Our congregation, by the way, has grown by 70% over the past decade or so.

What these statistics tell us is that there is a crisis taking place right now within American Christianity, and especially within the American Protestant tradition.  Most mainline denominations have declined by 10% to 25% in less than a decade.  This decline in numbers coincides with a decline in stature.  In the past decade the public perception of religion has taken a beating.  The terrorist attacks of September eleventh are associated with religion in the public imagination.  The worldwide childhood sex abuse conspiracy and cover-up within the Roman Catholic Church has profoundly undermined trust in religious institutions and religious authority.  A third factor in the decline of religion in the United States is that the most public expressions of religion in the past decade have involved virulent homophobia, splenetic judgments about abortion, and a prurient fascination with sexuality in general.  A few years ago, the Barna Group, an organization that does polling about religion in America, interviewed young people and found that the term they most closely associated with Christianity was “anti-gay.”  Over the past decade denominational conferences as well as congregations have become battlegrounds over issues related to sexual orientation producing knock-down drag-out fights, divisions, and schisms between factions in the church where people were mean and nasty to one another.  That’s never a good growth strategy.  And, finally, the public alignment of religion with political parties has had a negative impact on the public perception of religion.  When religious leaders get in bed with politicians and political parties for the purposes of building power and influence, religious people are ones who wind up being used and losing respect.  [These four factors were discussed by Diana Butler Bass in a piece by CBS News that also prominently features Unitarian Universalists.  That piece is included as part of the keynote given by Lillian Daniel.  Go to 13:00 in the video to see the CBS News piece.]

This decline in numbers and stature may have been what Lillian Daniel had in mind when she wrote, When “Spiritual But not Religious” is Not Enough.  On the surface, the book is mostly a collection of short reflections from a Christian perspective.  Well, mostly short reflections but also a handful of rants sprinkled in as well.  A subtle but common thread that runs through many of these meditations and reflections is they have to do with locating the transformative, life-affirming aspects of religion in the gathered church, the ecclesia, the community of religious people, as well as in a tradition that was there before us and will survive beyond us.  Her book is, in Daniel’s own words, “an apologetic, not for a belief stance, but for the meaning of community.”

The term “spiritual but not religious” refers to people who actively search for transcendent meaning, even for God, but choose not to participate in a religious community in any meaningful sense.  Some, but not all, atheists, agnostics and humanists are “spiritual but not religious.”  It is a term that mostly refers to people who think of themselves as Christian but don’t have a community, or people who dabble in a variety of spiritual practices and sample from many of the world’s religious traditions without having a community in which they are grounded.  With the statistics that I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, with the startling decline in the number of Americans who identify with any religious tradition, you can imagine that this category of the “spiritual but not religious” is rapidly increasing.

Lillian Daniel is admittedly judgmental of people who are spiritual but not religious.  “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me,” she writes.  “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.  What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on your stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you.  Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all by yourself.  Being privately spiritual but not religious has become the norm in American culture.”  The rants in Lillian Daniel’s book have to do with her frustration with a world in which religious community is in decline and in which shallowness, consumerism, self-centeredness, and loneliness are increasingly present.

When Daniel spoke to a room full of 500 UU ministers, the reception she received was somewhat divided.  I found myself talking with many of my colleagues and asking them if they were on-board with her message.  What I discovered to be anecdotally true was that ministers who live in places that are religiously progressive tended to like Lillian Daniel a lot and that my colleagues who reside in places that are more religiously conservative tended not to agree with her as much.  My colleague in Houston put it this way, “I run into people all the time who are going it alone spiritually because they’ve been burned so badly by religion.  God may not have pushed them away, but the church certainly did.  And I don’t think it’s fair to paint the people I meet as self-centered or irresponsible, when they are more wounded than anything else.”  One of my Kansas colleagues agreed enthusiastically.  “You want to know how to make the church unattractive to people who visit?  Have the minister criticize them for not being a part of a church, that’s how.”  On the other hand, a friend of mine who serves a church in the Boston area loved what Lillian Daniel had to say.  “I run into so many people who look down on religion condescendingly, who are cultured despisers of religion.  And when they open their mouths they don’t have the faintest idea what they’re talking about.  There isn’t a church in my county that resembles all the bad things they assume about religion.”  A colleague of mine who lives in Northern California told me that he considers narcissism and self-centeredness to be biggest spiritual issue of our time and that religious community can be a great antidote for narcissism.

Let me share one of the stories from Lillian Daniel’s book.  It is not the best story.  It is not the most memorable story.  But it is a story that most clearly illustrates her message about the church as a transformative institution and presents a challenging vision of community.  She serves a church in the affluent suburbs of Chicago.  The church offers itself up as a homeless shelter every Sunday night.  Despite the wealth of the area where she lives, as many as 60 men, women, and children receive shelter at the church.  As we may expect, her church begins to receive complaints about homeless people panhandling, pushing carts with their belongings through the town, and hanging out at the local Starbucks.  Daniel writes,

Some of the complaints I have heard center around the fact that the homeless have the nerve to sit on the bench outside the coffee shop, and by doing so, prevent others from sitting there who would not want to sit by someone like that.  It is as if, in this affluent suburb, there is an unspoken sign that says that if you pay enough money for your home, you should not only not have to sit next to a homeless person, you should not even have to see one…  To which Jesus and the church have a very clear answer that will not satisfy these people.  The answer is this:  in the world, there may be assigned seating, but in the kingdom of heaven there is not.  And so if we believe in that heavenly banquet, we ought to act like it, and live it out here.  For Jesus and the disciples, there were no assigned seats at his table.  All were welcome, particularly in their brokenness, for the church was born on the damaged consciences and rotten reputations of tax collectors, sinners, and people in need.  The church will always be criticized when it challenges the world on these issues.

For Lillian Daniel, as a Christian, the church is the institution through which God’s grace works in our lives.  She’s responding I think to a historical moment in which a whole lot of people have said that they have no need for these institutions.  In so many words they’ve said, “Religion is not the solution to our problems.  Religion is the problem.”  And she’s responding, I think, to a historical moment in which religious institutions themselves have engaged in a lot of self-destructive foolishness: senseless violence, scandals that reveal corruption, an unhealthy fascination with private behavior, toxic feuds, and lusting after power at the expense of professed values.  She still loves the church deeply despite its colossal errors and in spite of those who would try to convince her that the church is useless.

I think there is a parallel to be made here.  After all, we’re living in a time in which people have tried to argue that “Government is not the solution to our problems.  Government is the problem.”  Aren’t we living in a historical moment in which our government has engaged in a lot of self-destructive foolishness: senseless violence, scandals that reveal corruption, an unhealthy fascination with private matters, toxic feuds, and lusting after power at the expense of professed values?  Is there a way to hold out for government despite the colossal errors and in spite of those who would try to convince her that the government is useless.

I admit that this analogy is not without its problems.  For one thing, religious institutions are voluntary associations.  People make choices as to whether to participate in them or not.  Government is an involuntary association.  You can’t just decide to opt out of following laws or paying taxes.

What do we do when growing numbers of people denigrate institutions that matter?  What do we do when the discourse is full of false witness?  And, what do we do when our institutions are failing to do what they should be doing?

I don’t want to pretend that I have all the answers to fix the problems with government.  Heck, I don’t even pretend to have all the answers to fix all the problems with church.  If I said that I did you should probably choose not to listen to me.  While I don’t have all the answers, I would like to think that I can see some of the problems.  And those problems, as I see it, have to do with different visions of what a good future, a good society, looks like.  I don’t think that there is a commonly held idea of where we’d like to go, much less a shared sense of how to get there.  I believe that we have profoundly different ideas about the role of government, different ideas about human nature, different answers to the question of who are neighbors are and what we owe to one another.  I have my own answers to these questions.

I would like to offer a few thoughts to take with you in the days ahead.  I think being spiritual but not religious is analogous to being opinionated but not political.  Lillian Daniel says that being spiritual all by yourself and finding God in the sunset seems to work when everything is going well, but not well at all when you get cancer.  Then it helps to have religious community.  The world cries out not for people to have opinions or retweet funny jokes.  These times ask us to be engaged in real work with other people.

The answer to bad religion isn’t no religion.  It’s better religion.  The answer to bad government isn’t no government.  It’s better government.  Amen.


Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Dispatches from Kevin Yoder's Facebook Page

Over the past several days – over the weekend, on Monday as the government shutdown loomed, yesterday, and today – I decided to take a look at the Facebook page of Congressman Kevin Yoder.  As the deadline to fund the operations of the federal government approached and passed I wondered what the comments would be like on Rep. Yoder’s Facebook page.

I have no way of knowing whether the commenters on the Congressman’s page are representative of the majority of voters in Kansas’ third district who voted him into office in 2010.  (He ran unopposed in 2012.)  Who is more likely to comment on his page, those who support his positions or those who oppose them?  Who was more likely to post on his Facebook page at 11:30 on Monday night?  Are the commenters even his constituents or are they political activists from outside his congressional district?

I don’t know how representative those commenters are.  All I know is that a lot of them favored the government shutdown.  A LOT OF THEM.  Who are these people?  Accuse me of rubbernecking.  Accuse me of masochism.  Accuse me of a fascination with the grotesque, but after reading hundreds and hundreds of comments by people who think the government shutdown is a good thing, here is what I heard them saying:

Obama must be stopped.  These commenters don’t just believe that President Obama is promoting policies that they disagree with or that they think are unwise.  They don’t just believe that he’s governing in a way that is making America worse off.  These commenters deeply believe Obama is actively trying to destroy the country, that his presidency is doing irreparable harm to our nation.  Therefore the commenters have a message for members of the House:

Stand your ground.  The commenters feel that Obama is so bad that anything would be better.  Dig in your heels, they say.  In particular, the Affordable Care Act needs to be defunded because…

The ACA is evil.  The Affordable Care Act is Obama’s signature piece of legislation and those commenters in favor of a government shutdown think it is the most atrocious piece of legislation ever.  They are convinced that it will bankrupt the country, deprive people of their freedoms and rights, and/or drive people who already have health insurance into financial ruin.  Fundamentally, the commenters believe that…

Health care is not a right.  The commenters think that health care is a commercial service that should only be available to those who can afford it.  If you can’t afford it then that’s too bad for you.  As for the rest of the government…

The shutdown is a good first step.  Government is the enemy.  Many commenters urged Yoder to make the shutdown permanent.  Then make some real cuts.  What do you call 800,000 furloughed government employees?  A good start.  The commenters feel that the federal government is too big so anything that shrinks the government – a sequester, a shutdown – is good.  Or at least it is a good start.  Oh, but still…

Give me what I want.  Several posters commented that while they were all for a government shutdown, there should be an exception made for funding a particular service of the government that they liked.

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Let me be clear.  I could not disagree more vehemently with the six bolded statements above.  But hundreds and hundreds of commenters on Kevin Yoder’s Facebook page do.  Thousands of voters in Kansas’ third district favor the shutdown.  Millions of Americans are glad it’s happening.

A government shutdown may not be favored by a majority of Americans.  It may not be favored by a majority of voters in a majority of congressional districts.  It may not be favored by a majority of voters in Kevin Yoder’s district or even by a majority of those commenting on his Facebook page.  (However, I wouldn’t bet against him if there were an election held tomorrow.)

Let’s face it:  Remember those promises about cutting spending and reducing the size of government, about standing up to Obama and working to repeal the Affordable Care Act?  Those promises are being fulfilled by the sequester, by the shutdown, and by whatever the House has planned when it comes time to raise the debt ceiling.  All those calls for members of congress to go without pay during the shutdown are misguided.  The members of congress responsible for the shutdown are simply doing the job they promised they would do when elected.

How will it all end?  This piece in the Huffington Post says that it will take 17 Republicans voting out of line with their party to pass a resolution to end the shutdown.  It claims that 18 (all of whom but one or two serve solidly blue states) have hinted they would do so if given the chance.  Whether they will be given the chance is something that I don’t know the answer to.

I am extremely confident that the Senate and the President will not budge an inch on any matter of significance.  Nor should they.  Doing so would only set a precedent making shutdowns a legitimate governing tactic.  I don’t believe that they are.  Hundreds of commenters on Kevin Yoder’s Facebook page would disagree with me.

However it plays out, this might not be the last time we see these types of tactics this year.  The next fiscal cliff is only two weeks away.  Furthermore, I’m not sure that the 2014 midterm elections will offer a fix.  I predict that the citizens of our polarized and divided nation are likely to vote for the status quo.

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A final thought.  The story yesterday about WWII veterans breaking down the barricades to visit the WWII Memorial in Washington D.C. got me thinking about other government services that we could receive through mob rule.  Should mothers who’ve had their WIC benefits cut now go and steal from the grocery store?  Should furloughed workers and small business owners raid the treasury for their salaries and loans?  Should children with cancer break into the NIH and self-administer their treatments?  Should sequester cuts to Head Start be addressed by kidnapping teachers and forcing them to teach our children?  It is the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the vulnerable who are the real victims here.  It’s the people living paycheck to paycheck.  It’s the regular folks just trying to get by.

Does anyone else feel like getting away?  Hey, I know, let’s break into NASA and plan our own space mission.