Monday, August 22, 2011

Putting Ourselves In The Story

I preached for the second time in my new church home yesterday.  This is what I said:

A story (adapted from a story by Eli Wiesel): 

A long time ago a devastating calamity befell a small Jewish village.  The people turned to their rabbi, known for his great spiritual gifts, and begged for help.  The rabbi went to a special place in the forest.  He built a fire, laying the wood in a particular intricate pattern.  And then he uttered a sacred prayer.  And the calamity was averted.
Generations passed, and once again extremely hard times fell upon the village.  Once again, the people went to their rabbi.  And this rabbi, too, went out to that special place in the forest.  But over time the secret of how to build the intricate fire had been lost.  “I am here,” the rabbi said, “and I still know the prayer.  This must be enough.”  And it was enough.  The village was saved.
Generations passed.  Once more the hard times; one more the request of the rabbi.  This rabbi went to the special place in the woods.  “I do not know how to build the fire,” the rabbi said.  “And I no longer know the sacred prayer.  But I am here, and this must be enough.”   And it was enough.  Once again, the people were safe.
In recent times this village once again knew great fear and tribulation.  Once more the people went to their rabbi, as their ancestors and their ancestors had before them.  But this rabbi did not go into the woods.  She went into her study.  And there she lit a candle and said, “Generations ago we forgot how to build the intricate fire.  And the words of the sacred prayer have long been lost.  I no longer even know where the special place in the woods is.  But I do know the story, and that must be enough.”  And it was enough.
It was enough because, as it’s been said, “God made humankind because God loves stories.” 
Stories.  Legends.  Myths.  Life.
Our life – yours and mine.  They’re stories.  Stories.  And as the great mythologist Joseph Campbell taught so many back in the late ‘80s and early 90’s, they’re not just independent stories, not just ours and ours alone, but the stories of our lives are stories within Stories.  There’s the hero’s journey.  And the exodus story of movement from bondage to freedom.  And there’s death and resurrection.  And the embrace of the “Other” within community.  These Grand Stories are our stories, and our stories are these Stories.
In the Introduction to the companion volume for the PBS series The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers wrote:
“One of my colleagues had been asked by a friend about our collaboration with Campbell:  “Why do you need the mythology?”  She held the familiar, modern opinion that “all these Greek gods and stuff” are irrelevant to the human condition today.  What she did not know – what most do not know – is that the remnants of all that “stuff” line the walls of our interior system of belief, like shards of broken pottery in an archeological site.  But as we are organic beings, there is energy in all that “stuff.”
Stories.  Stuff.  The Stuff of Life.  The Staff of Life.  The Spirit of Life.  Our life – yours and mine.  You can feel it, sometimes, when you encounter a really well-told tale; you can feel that this story is yours, too.  And there are times when you’re going through whatever it is that you’re going through at the time and you realize – you can see it and feel it – the Tragedy or the Comedy of it all.
The majority of the world’s religions that we humans have developed have made explicit use of this mutual identification.  Each holds up a story, or a connected canon of stories, and encourages their adherents to align the story of their own lives with these overarching narrative arcs. 
As an example, in the vast majority of Christian churches – of most types – the worship life of the congregation is woven on the framework of the lectionary.  The Christian lectionary is a (usually) three-year cycle of readings that works its way systematically from the beginning of Genesis through the end of Revelations.  Sunday after Sunday, week after week, month after month, the texts are laid out in such a way that the whole of the Christian Story is made relevant to the lived experience of the congregants and so that the congregants are returned, again and again, to their normative Story. 
I know, I can tell, some of you are saying, “That’s what was happening in my last church?”  Yeah, well, some do it better than others, but that’s at least the theory behind the lectionary.  In a regular, repeated, and systematic way people are taken step by step through the Bible with the intention of bringing those sacred texts to bear on the lives of the people and the people’s lived experience to bear on the texts.
Now we Unitarian Universalist have taken a different tack.  Some time ago we eschewed any one overarching narrative; we stopped seeing any one Story as normative for us.  Like Joseph Campbell, perhaps, we began to see the relationships and interconnectedness among the world’s Great Stories.  We came to recognize their relativity.
And, so, you might say that we went through our own exodus, freeing ourselves from the bondage to a text and the structure of a lectionary.  We ceased to engage in lectionary worship and began to engage, instead, in thematic worship.  Clergy and lay worship leaders were now free each week to explore the themes which they felt most relevant.  And in many ways this has been a good and enriching thing for us.
And, yet, as any good Story will have already told you, with every blessing comes with a curse; for every mountaintop there is a valley.
You see, I think that there is a reason that the majority of the world’s religions we humans have created have explicitly held up a story, or a connected canon of stories, and encouraged their adherents to align the story of their own lives with these overarching narrative arcs.  The reason is because we human beings are by nature both meaning seekers and storytellers.  If it can be truly said that God created humans because God loves stories, the reverse is true as well – we human beings so love stories that we have created gods and goddesses and heroes and villains and journeys and quests and epic love and all that other “stuff” we know from the Grand Old Tales.  And, as Bill Moyers noted, there is energy in that stuff – real, potent, needed energy – and when we Unitarian Universalists divorced ourselves from the Story – because, in the end, of course, all of those stories really are just One Story – we separated ourselves from something that gives meaning, and clarity, and vitality to life.
I think this is why, in part, there’s the perception that Unitarian Universalism is not a real religion, that our worship is “dry as dust” or, as our own St. Ralph once called it, “corpse cold.”  It’s why so many have experience worship in our sanctuaries as interesting lectures and lovely concerts.  It’s why so many people, who love our Principles and our ideals and our stance on issues of justice and the freedom we offer one another, look around after they’ve been in one of our congregations for a while and ask, “but isn’t there anything . . . more?”
A growing number of our congregations – and some of our growing congregations at that – have begun to experiment with a return to the lectionary.  But not the Christian lectionary.  Not a text-based lectionary at all.  Instead, these communities have been working on the creation of theme-based lectionaries – a (usually) three-year cycle of themes that are explored a month at a time, over and over again, going ever deeper, moving the congregation over time through a journey that reflects and is reflected in their own journeys. 
Those congregations that have experimented with doing this have found, besides a greater feeling of coherence among the services from week to week, a real sense of that . . . “more.”  The Lifespan Faith Development Program – religious education for children, youth, and adults – can be more intimately tied to the thematic focus of the worship.  Supplemental materials can be developed so that individuals and families can explore the themes of worship more deeply at home on their own.  And because the thematic focus from week to week is based on a two- or three-year cycle, it’s possible for those who plan worship to have at least a general idea of what’ll be explored not just a week or two in advance, but a year or two.  Can you imagine the kind of creative collaborations this could make possible?  The kind of breadth and depth that this could engender?
You can probably tell that I’m pretty excited by this development in our movement.  It’s one of the things I studied from my vantage point as the Director of the Office of Worship and Music Resources at our Association’s headquarters in Boston.  Getting the chance to be part of this experiment is one of the reasons I was excited to get back into the parish.  And when I met Leia during my pre-candidating weekend, one of the things that excited me about TJMC was that she’d been hankering to try it out too.  And so, over the summer, before I was even on the payroll, I set up a wiki site on the Internet so that Leia, I, and the Worship Associates could explore what this might mean for us here over the next year, and what themes we thought we should begin with.
I will say that for me, one of the failings of this “theme-based ministry” approach (as it’s been developed so far) is that the monthly themes don’t always seem to me to express any kind of connection among themselves.  There’s no “narrative flow” to the year, and this, it seems to me, is one of the key features of the traditional lectionary model, and one of its most important gifts.   So this is something we’ll be experimenting with here:  what is the narrative, what is the Story, that will most help us – UUs living in 21st century Charlottesville, Virginia – to make sense of our lives?  
For right now, the coming year looks something like this:
In the Fall, we gather together once again, take a bit of a collective in-breath, and tend to begin looking inward as we prepare for winter.  We remember those who have died, remember our interconnectedness, and give thanks.  For the months of September, October, and November our themes will be Hospitality, Atonement, and Gratitude.
In the Winter, shorter days and longer nights encourage us to light those festival fires, snuggle up with one another, celebrate hearth and home, kith and kin.  Yet it has also been seen by many as, perhaps, the most realistic of the seasons, a time to look at things squarely and without flinching.  And so December, January, and February will see us exploring Incarnation, Death, and Justice.
Spring is a time during which the earth awakens and so do we.  It’s a time to celebrate freedom from all kinds of bondage, to remember those who have sacrificed, to honor the re-birthing earth, the re-birthing spirit, and the spirit of community.  In March, April, and May our themes will be Grace, Creation, and Faith.
And then there’s Summer – life is vibrant, full, and lush, and even for those who must keep up the daily grind there’s still a sense of openness and possibility.  For June, July, and August we will explore Letting Go, Freedom, and Peace.
Hospitality, Atonement, Gratitude, Incarnation, Death, Justice, Grace, Creation, Faith, Letting Go, Freedom, and Peace – twelve of the great themes of our human experience tied to the movement of the seasons, which reflect and are a reflection of the movement of our own lives. 
Someone asked me the other day what I was going to be preaching about this Sunday and, after I told him, he said, “Oh . . . so it’s going to be an institutional sermon.  When are you going to start telling us about what you believe?”
Okay . . . I believe this:  what we do here matters.
Life can be hard.  It can be scary.  It can be confusing.  It can be unfair.  Siddhartha Buddha said, “life is suffering,” and while that might not seem like the way to sum up your every waking minute, there’s no doubt that it can be rough.  And even when it’s going well there can be the fear that that’s soon going to come to an end, or we know someone somewhere for whom it is hard, and we feel for them and with them.
And there is no secret place in the woods, and no matter how intricately you build your fire it’ll still be just a fire, and there are no magic formula to make everything “okay” for all times and all peoples.
But we do have the stories.  And I believe that the stories are enough.  Or, rather, I believe that the stories are enough if we’re willing to learn from them and then put what we learn into practice.  It isn’t easy, but no one said it would be (at least, not in the stories I liked best).  But it is possible.  All of the stories agree on that.  It is possible.  If we join with others on our journey, and follow the signs and the guides, we will get there.
[The Order of Service tells you that we’re going to be singing, “When I Am Frightened,” now, but I’m thinking that we ought to turn instead to the song written by the Ghanaian drummer Sol Amarifio, #1020 in the teal hymnal, “Woyaya.”]

NOTE:  You can find the podcast of this sermon on the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church's website.