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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What Calls Us


Reading from Souls bold enough to experiment, UU World Fall ‘12 (by Meg Muckenhoupt)

There’s enough room for all 111 children and youth and their religious education teachers to stand side by side at the front of the sanctuary of All Souls New London, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in New London, Connecticut. The space is wide enough for everyone to face the congregation from the stage, a long, low platform framed by a vivid skyscape of the horizon at dawn. The entire congregation participates in the Religious Education Sunday service. Their minister, the Rev. Carolyn Patierno, greets the congregation as souls, and later steps off the stage in the middle of the service to play the flute with a congregational ensemble. The youth hold an energy break,  hoisting a volleyball net and heaving a rainbow-colored beach ball to the seated congregation, which enthusiastically bats the ball about until the youth recapture it.

The entire service would have been impossible in All Souls’s old building, a brick church built on a ledge with almost as many steps as seats in the pews. Built in 1910, that church is long and narrow with a high pulpit and no room to expand. In 2006, the growing congregation moved out of their historic home into a new location: a one-time car dealership on the other side of the church‘s parking lot. At the same time, All Souls opened space in its old building to the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, a daytime shelter.

But All Souls didn’t just allow the Hospitality Center to occupy unused space. The congregation installed showers in their new building so that the homeless guests could bathe.  They decided to engage people’s bodies and invited people into the heart of their space…  

More than 100 guests use the Hospitality Center each day, and at least a dozen come to the church seeking the center … Members of the congregation have an understanding of the problems of homelessness and poverty, and have seen the effect of the recession up close.

The congregation takes pride in being good neighbors, and welcoming the Hospitality Center guests who choose to attend services though none of the guests have joined the congregation permanently. They are a transient community,  and move to wherever they find permanent shelter. The Hospitality Center [pays] a stipend to the church for the space …but the amount has not changed in five years.  Says minister Carolyn Patierno, “What we have gotten back is the feeling we are living out our values.”
  
 All Souls is proud of being a beacon, not a bunker church… but the church doesn’t just look outward.… All Souls adopted new, higher expectations for members.  Members have to pledge, participate, and show up, says Lynn Tavormina, All Souls’ incoming president. You don’t just come when you want to; you come.

At the end of the service, the entire congregation stands and joins hands, and Patierno leads a call and response: Who are we? All Souls! We are! All Souls!  The souls at All Souls know who they are, what they are trying to do, and how they are going to do it: together.

The Rev. Sue Phillips, district executive for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay districts says, ”Almost any congregation can do what New London has done. And if every New England congregation could do some of what New London has done, we would have [another] Great Awakening in New England. The potential here is enormous.”

Sermon


The Great Awakening refers to periods of religious revival in American history, beginning in the 1730s and 1740s. A second wave occurred in the late 1700s into the mid-1800s and the third wave spanned 1850 to 1910, encompassing the era of Social Gospel. Each of these periods awakened Americans to deeper spiritual connection, shifting focus from church doctrine to a lived experience of faith. The fervency of preachers sought to reach beyond intellect to stir the hearts of parishioners summoning them to a consciousness of grace. The awakenings arose out of particular socio-historical contexts; the Third Great Awakening emerged in a nation riven by civil war.

In 2012, amidst another vitriolic campaign cycle, we close a week that saw the death of a U.S. ambassador, three other diplomats and several civilians in violent uprisings staged at embassies across North Africa and the Middle East in response not just to an ignorant, incendiary, hateful video screed against Islam, but in response to a clash in values that befuddles most Americans who find it difficult if not impossible to understand why our way of life is not welcome everywhere. Many of us find it incomprehensible that a poorly produced cartoon film would ignite lethal protests; but to millions of Muslims the act of desecrating their prophet is as much an anathema as a nation where the rhetoric of defilement and limitless cash anonymously poured into campaigns are protected as free speech. Setting aside critiques of U.S. foreign policy we label anti-American sentiment, let us consider on this sunny Sunday morning what calls us and from that lens perhaps we can better comprehend adherents of a faith—any faith—who treat the sacred as inviolable.

As we know, the dominant cultural strands of materialism, consumerism, competition (why must we be the greatest nation on earth?) don’t lend themselves or us to the dominant religious strands of any Great Awakening. In another article from the current issue of UU World magazine, the Rev, Ana Levy-Lyons asks:

Do we UUs … experience a tension between our religious values and the values of the secular world? It seems clear that there should be tension, enormous tension. Until the world is as it should be, until war and hunger are abolished, until we are living gently on the earth, until power is shared and all voices are heard, we should not be able to fit comfortably into this culture. We should feel this tension in every decision we make: when we shop, when (and if) we watch TV, when we go to work, when we speak to a child. The questions of to what extent and in what ways we should participate in the dominant culture should keep us up at night. If we’re doing it right, it should be hard to be a Unitarian Universalist in this world.

Think about that. When we think of Orthodox Jews or observant Muslims, Sikhs or Seventh Day Adventists we might imagine the challenges they face maintaining demanding dietary practices or donning distinctive head coverings. We might marvel at how Muslims fast during Ramadan, abstaining from water in the scorching August sun or wonder if young Sikh boys resent their turbans. We might casually admire their discipline or devotion or toss it off as outdated and relish the freedom of a religious affiliation that seems to ask nothing more of us than keeping an open mind and the willingness to serve fair-trade coffee.

But what would it mean to be kept up at night questioning the extent of acceptable participation in the dominant culture? What would it mean to devote some portion of our day to genuine mindfulness and study about a foreign policy that presumes that our way of life is both superior and desirable to all? What would it mean to inhabit the personas of millions of people whose faith holds primacy in their hierarchy of values. Not democracy, not liberty, not the pursuit of happiness. What would it mean to don the humility to even imagine that point view, without judgment, pity or scorn?

What would it mean to step back from our own lives and examine our culture from afar? What would we make of the lines of traffic on highways and in superstore aisles juxtaposed with empty sanctuaries, shuttered schools, abandoned houses? What would we face were we to peer into factory feed lots where tens of thousands of sentient beings live lives reminiscent of concentration camps except that these beings are fattened for slaughter by the master race? If our days were organized around five times of prayer, what would our schedule look like? What would change if lunch were preceded by a brief period of consciousness about where our food comes from? How it gets to our plate and whether it gets to someone else’s? How would it change a wedding day to begin it by contemplating the American ritual of buying a dress, often costly, never to be worn again? To say nothing of spending tens of thousands on a two-or-three day party? How would evening be transformed by nightly prayers of moral inventory and self-reflection?

If piety meant religious principles above all else, if commitment to creating heaven on earth, that is to say a commonwealth of equity, justice and peace founded on planetary sustainability were paramount, would it be a conceivable response to a deliberate act of desecration to express outrage? Could we imagine ourselves traveling en masse to offices of legislators who pass draconian funding cuts while doling out tax breaks and subsidies to industries of mass production and destruction? Could we imagine ringing the White House as Bill McKibben and other environmentalists did to try to block the Alberta Tar Sands Pipeline from defiling this swath of earth? In multiple daily prayers would we have time to consider what it means to categorize only certain people as environmentalists as if any humans could detach from the ground of being that makes human life possible? Would less TV, texting or technology-driven convenience leave us more time to prayerfully ponder why it is that we will spend billions to elect politicians eager to hydrofracture shale, remove mountaintops, oil the waters and chastise the military for developing alternative fuels while expecting them to end every speech by commanding God to bless the United States of America? How can God bless what we defile?
The Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons remind us in her essay drawn from a sermon.

Religious communities have almost always started out countercultural. The early Christian community described in the book of Acts … were so inspired by the teachings of Jesus that they completely broke from their social context. They gave away all their possessions and lived together in spiritual community. Being a Christian was not initially seen as compatible with living a normal life, working a normal job, or even owning land. These early Christians were asserting an alternative vision of how people can live together in service of a larger mission.

Centuries before Jesus, ancient Israelites envisioned a world far more responsive to those burdened by inequity: the poor, the oppressed, the widowed and orphaned, the refugee. Consider how profoundly countercultural it would be in 2012 to reinstate the year of Jubilee. From the book of Leviticus (25:10) “You are to consecrate the fiftieth year, proclaiming freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It will be a Jubilee for you; you will return everyone to the land he owns and everyone is to return to his family.”

 Just to conceptualize what such a year would mean boggles the mind. Would we start by returning land to Native Americans? Would we make reparations to the descendents of millions of enslaved Africans who toiled and died here? Would we follow by releasing the fifty-five billion animals we call livestock now penned in feed lots? Would we return foreclosed homeowners to the houses? Would we liberate all the bonded laborers employed in this country? Would we seriously consider forgiveness of debt for everyone who has borrowed heavily to pay for health care, food, college, transportation for work if there is work to be found?

Contrast this concept of a jubilee year proscribed in the Hebrew Scriptures as a way to achieve justice with a Forbes Real-Time Billionaire feature that tracks the daily gains and losses for major public holdings of a select group of billionaires. Not their net worth, just public holdings. For instance, Sheldon Adelson, CEO of Las Vegas Sands, made $590 million on a single stock holding. Forbes updates this information every fifteen minutes from 9:30-4:00, the business hours of the New York Stock Exchange.

Is this worth countering?
And do we have the will to do so?
The Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons observes,
… countercultural vision has reappeared repeatedly in different forms throughout history. The Occupy movement, especially in its actual occupying phase, was a recent [example] of it. Sadly, the trajectory of these movements is almost always one of decline: the commitment fades, the momentum fizzles, the teachings ossify. Over time, people find it too hard to stand so alienated from the lives they once knew. The sacrifices are too great.

She quotes James Luther Adams, one of the leading Unitarian Universalist theologians of the twentieth century who wrote:

 The element of commitment, of change of hearts, of decision so much emphasized in the Gospels, has been neglected by religious liberalism, and that is the prime source of its enfeeblement. We liberals are largely an uncommitted and therefore self-frustrating people. Our first task, then, is to restore to liberalism its own dynamic and its own prophetic genius . . . A holy community must be a militant community with its own explicit faith; and this explicit faith cannot be engendered without disciplines that shape the ethos of the group and that issue in the criticism of the society and of the  religious  community itself.

Discipline, sacrifice, explicit faith. What could be more countercultural in a culture defined by life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Many of the world’s people subscribe to a vision shaped by discipline, sacrifice and explicit faith. We who espouse life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness too often embody our life, our liberty, our pursuit of happiness and the rest be damned while God blesses America.

This morning I invite you to consider what it would mean for this congregation to become religiously countercultural. I invite you to discuss it at social hour. How would such a choice impact what we eat? What we serve? How we worship and where? How would such a choice guide the allocation of resources? The ministries we undertake? The policies we enact?

In New London, a congregation made the bold choice, first to work together to become a congregation of commitment, so as to enable itself to live out the teaching of the Social Gospel, to take seriously the biblical mandates to serve the least among us: those we make least through our silence, our complicity, our inertia.

Last April, I preached a sermon expressing my desire to live with more coherent intention. To live counterculturally in community. This issue of the UU World gives me hope that our denomination won’t collapse into irrelevance—relegating ourselves to rhetoric of goodness without the sacrifice, discipline and explicit faith James Luther Adams called for last century.

I began this new church year last week by asking, “What can we do together to re-connect more deeply with the ground of being to which we all belong?” I see it as another way to frame what it means to become that holy community Adams speaks of, the community envisioned in Leviticus and Acts, and in the Holy Qu’ran. I hear it as call from our sister congregation in New London to spark another Great Awakening and I am listening for our reply. Amen.

Our closing words come from the current issue of the UU World  by way of Om Prakash:
Do not sit alone in the dark while creation sings a three part harmony.
Dance, my friends.
Dance wildly, sing joyfully,
fill your heart with the Beauty of the Beloved
as the Beloved turns your soul to light.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Art from the Art Party

These are a few photos from Leaf's art party, which she auctioned off this year. It was super fun and creative. Next year you come, too.

 Robert, Living Art






Snippets of our conversation. What were we discussing, anyway?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A New Paradigm



Recently I listened to an interview on my favorite public radio show, On Being.  Krista Tippett interviewed Christian Wiman, a poet, essayist, and editor of Poetry Magazine. Wiman grew up in West Texas in a Southern Baptist family. Like many young people, he left the church and religion when he left home, but several years later he returned to religion, to God. I was so engaged by the program, I listened to the unedited ninety-minute interview, then watched his interview with Bill Moyers. What captivated me most was this exchange with Krista Tippett who asks:

[If] you think about yourself in church all those years ago in west Texas, the church you grew up in, which was just given to you like the air you breathed and then when you're in church now, what's going on that's different? How is that experience different?
Mr Wiman: Well, it's utterly different. I think it's a weaker experience now. I mean, I'm just too conscious. I wish I were able to let myself go in ways that those people did in my childhood and still do. When I go to my mother's church now, it's one of those big mega-churches. You know, I don't agree with their theology and I don't like a lot of the ways that they commercialize their services, but it is an incredibly diverse church and the people are intensely involved. They're treating it as if their whole life were at stake. The churches I go to, liberal Protestant churches, it seems pretty casual. I wish there were some credible middle ground. I wish there was some way of harnessing that — the intensity that I felt in my childhood in more sophisticated ways.

You know how I talk about my inner-tent-revivalist? Well this is the tent I’ve been talking about and it’s going up now. Somebody left that barn door open and my inner-revivalist is coming out. Seriously, there is a deep and vast hunger to marry the intensity of a tent revival with a sophisticated understanding of spirit, and we, brothers and sisters, can officiate. But first we must recognize the power of treating church as if our whole life were at stake.

Now it’s easy to dismiss this part; we don’t labor under the threat of eternal damnation. But we live in a state of perpetual disconnection that causes this hunger. Our daily lives are filled with a thousand choices that either connect or disconnect us from the ground of our being—choices that don’t even feel like choices anymore. None of us wants to purchase products made by exploited workers but we figure what’s our choice? So we buy the smart phone or the cheap underwear, or anything else we can find at the big-box store, the discount chain or online, and it tears a little each time we do because even if we rationalize with our minds, the heart center, that core part of our being where knowing, not just thinking, resides, sighs. We know even if we ignore it that there’s no clean way to extract oil or natural gas. Fossil fuels are dirty even if the ads for them are sanitized. Literally everywhere we turn, we feel trapped by what feels like an inevitable, inescapable path paved with the bricks of individualism, competition, and fear. Our political discourse bounces between ridiculous and rancorous; we let the free market—not our core values—decide and then shrug our shoulders with a combination of resignation and powerlessness. We don’t know what to tell or teach our children about yet another fatal shooting in school; and we don’t know what to say to those same children for whom bullying is a fact of life and video war games are staple entertainment.

Daily we spiral deeper into disconnect and the evidence is ubiquitous. Addiction, asthma, autism, depression, PTSD, chronic fatigue, poverty, income disparity—all on the rise. We all experience the disconnect whether or not we name it, see it, or believe it. Our bodies, the heart-center in each of us knows it. Our lives are at stake.

And yet we see an Easter headline like this one from the Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise: “Worshippers Waning: Local ministers say fewer of the faithful attend Easter Services.” And why are people not coming to church the way they did in the past? Because the old paradigm isn’t working.

Last month I read Thomas Bandy’s book, Kicking Habits: Welcome Relief for Addicted Churches. According to Bandy, twentieth-century folks went to church to belong to an institution, to secure status among the right social set, because neighbors and coworkers asked, “What church do you attend?” People joined to belong, and then the church set about to inform them of its structure, both implicit and explicit. Folks got nominated to committees and boards. They were groomed to maintain the church as an institution and train the next generation. Though they began as members, writes Bandy, they ended up as guardians: keepers of the institution. But in this millennium, he contends, people come to church, if they come at all, seeking something else. Not institutional belonging, not doctrine, not hierarchy, not committee meetings. People today seek deeper meaning, a greater sense of relevance and purpose. Bandy is not the only one reporting this. Every commentator or researcher I read says the same thing. People hunger to reconnect with the ground of being. For some that is God, for others, it is just that, the ground of all being, including theirs.

Bandy distinguishes between declining churches and thriving churches. Congregations, he asserts, must cross-examine themselves. Ask not what is important to many but truly essential to all?

In the newspaper article the minister of our sister congregation in Leominster says, “she tries to make religion and church life relevant for people in the post-modern age.” But even where there’s a parking lot, attendance is down on Easter. Why? Because it’s not enough to pepper our sermons with contemporary cultural references or sing folk songs. We have to act as if our lives are at stake. We have to address the deep disquieting discomforting disconnect that truncates our lives, that induces amnesia so that we forget and worse, deny our inter-being, the interdependency of the web. People come here seeking concrete ways to re-connect, to mend the torn fabric of creation, to engage in tikkun olam, not simply to do for others, but to relearn compassion for ourselves because we can’t give away what we don’t have.

People come to church not just to find relevance but to be relevant, which is to say related. Religion—from the Latin word for refasten. So how do we refasten ourselves? How do we re-member, re-attach that cleaved part that longs to be made whole?

We begin by re-connecting as Unitarian Universalists to a distinct tradition fraught with dissent that arose out of an insistence that we unite the intensity of religious fervor with our capacity for critical and compassionate thought. We recall the early martyrs of our movement who dared to speak against the religious hierarchies and edicts of their day, where their lives were literally at stake—being burned there. We teach our children and they more likely teach us what it means to take a stand—to stand with those who would otherwise go unprotected, unrepresented, whose dignity even the state would flagrantly defile.

In the nineteenth century, many Unitarian congregations split over slavery. Wealthy New England industrialists and mill owners defended it. Nothing is more profitable than slave labor. No doubt some of our churches have endowments built on those welted backs. The abolitionists who spoke up often got run out but they did not go silently because long before a gentle Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh taught two generations of westerners the term “inter-are,” abolitionists knew about the interconnectedness of being. And that knowing propelled them to speak against the willful ignorance of those who cherry-picked the Bible in defense of an economy based on defilement.
A century later, when Jim Crow still wielded the lash, a Unitarian minister in Boston named James Reeb heeded Martin Luther King’s call to join marchers in Selma. Jim Reeb died at thirty-eight leaving behind his wife and four children when white men gusseted by fear beat him for the courage of his convictions, probably because to them, pardon the phrase, he looked like a nigger-lover. He died by the hand of segregationists and for that he is remembered in Unitarian Universalist circles, but it was not his death that embodied his sense of connection; it was his years of ministry working to integrate neighborhoods and churches, and most importantly, the human heart. Jim Reeb did not duck controversy or dodge danger by eschewing the divisive. He understood the fearfulness that grips us and how quickly it transmogrifies into rage.

A decade ago, before any states had passed marriage equality laws, the church where I had interned, a church that had welcomed and affirmed me, that loved the music director and his male partner of near twenty years, fractured around the full impact of what it meant to be a welcoming congregation. The suggestion to fly a large rainbow flag met with resistance. What if people in town think we only welcome gays and not other minorities? What if people reduce us to being “the gay church”? And with equal urgency others in the congregation countered, but we are the only church that welcomes gay and transgender people. Religious institutions have rejected, vilified queer folk for centuries. Consider what it means for people to be welcomed not shunned? We have the power to do that, they pled.

A while back, during social hour, I overheard Dick mention people picketing in front of Planned Parenthood so I made an appointment a couple of weeks ago to meet the outreach coordinator there. The director of the clinic let me in. I had to ring a buzzer so the director could check the live video feed to make sure she didn’t let in someone with a weapon. If I might speak to the women for just a moment, do you remember your first pelvic exam? I was terrified. The thought of it was creepy and invasive. I cannot imagine overlaying that late adolescent self-consciousness and fear with having to be buzzed into a building because someone might burst in and shoot the doctor. It doesn’t matter that no abortions are performed in Fitchburg. To the people who carry signs equating abortion with murder, they are content to willfully ignore the statistics: that nationally, 97% of the health services Planned Parenthood provides are not related to an abortion—or that abortion is still legal. It is not that the protesters are evil or even hateful though it probably feels that way to the young woman terrified because she has missed a period, or the young man afraid he has contracted or spread an STD, who have finally summoned the courage to get tested—as they walk through the gauntlet of stares, signs and disparaging remarks.

As I said before, we live in a world that perpetually disconnects us. Each day every one of us without wanting to, or meaning to, or even thinking that we are, engage in processes that diminish life. The World Health Organization estimates that somewhere between 30-40,000 children die every day of preventable conditions, namely the lack of clean water and adequate nutrition. Right this minute there are thousands of children languishing in foster homes. And thousands more abducted, sold into sexual slavery, splayed on pornographic websites. You don’t need me to list all the ways we defile the inherent worth and dignity of so many beings. It’s easier to fixate on abortion as the single most egregious form of defilement than to reckon with all the forms in which we are complicit.

And yes, I could tell you the story of my great aunt, or really my father telling me about her, the way she came to him late in her life, when he became president of the local Planned Parenthood, and revealed to him what it had been like in the 1920s for her to climb the stairs of the tenement abortionist when she could not face bringing a third child into an apartment ravaged by an abusive alcoholic. It was not something she could discuss with her rabbi or seek solace for from her congregation.
But if one’s religious community is not a safe place to seek counsel or support or even companionship what does that say about the nature of religious community—a community intended to bind us together?

At the annual meeting I am asking that the congregation consider displaying a banner of support that reads: Love Responsibly. Support Planned Parenthood.
Why opt for something so divisive you might ask? Or seemingly political? For the same reason abolitionists objected to slavery when the biggest church donors profited from it. For the same reason Jim Reeb went down to Selma. For the same reason churches fly rainbow flags or banners supporting marriage equality.

To be relevant to the people of this congregation and community, that is to say related. To claim our connection with the heretical roots of our denomination, the branch that declared errors in the Trinity, and the branch that declared universal salvation, when both assertions sometimes resulted in death. Our denomination has been forged out of the courage to not only withstand the fires of condemnation and misunderstandding, but to champion conscience, reason, compassion and direct experience when no one else will.

We have the opportunity, as the church where I interned had years before, to publicly declare our support for people historically shunned by religious institutions: to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of the people a few blocks from here who seek medical services or work in a health clinic with surveillance cameras because our society hasn’t found a way to counter the deadliness of fear and ignorance yet.

And yes, if we hang a banner some people will say, “that’s the abortion church.”  But you know that just gives us the chance to say, “It’s not as simple as that.” Why not help shape a more thoughtful, compassionate and sophisticated dialogue? Why not re-connect with our own heretical roots? The etymological root of heresy, by the way, is choice.

Amid the overwhelming forces of disconnection, we hunger to reconnect. To restore wholeness cleaved a thousand times a day. Sisters and brothers, our lives are at stake. May we make of them a tent. Amen.