Monday, June 09, 2014

The More Things Change

In the congregation I serve -- the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA -- I hold a drop-in discussion group we call "Wednesday Wonderings."  It started with us using materials developed by Richard Foster to introduce people to the writings and thinking of a variety of Christian mystics.  Each session included an introduction to the person and then a series of bite-sized nuggets from their writing.  Most often it came from a single source, yet usually it was edited to a more reasonable size.  (Each session fit on four pages.)  We would go around the room, each person reading a section and then, although Foster included questions, we would ask each other what had stood out for us -- surprising, confusing, confirming, challenging.

The next year I took it upon myself to create similar materials by mystics of other traditions, and then this year I created three programs, each four weeks long:  one looked at the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, one looked at four key teachings of Christianity, and one looked at four texts from the Unitarian Universalist (tradition.)  The last session of this most recent program was a bit of a teaser for next year's course, in which we'll spend the year with Clinton Lee Scott's book, Religion Can Make Sense.

Scott was the Superintendent of the Massachusetts Universalist Convention.  During his career he gave a series of radio addresses, and these have been collected into this volume.  Next year we'll work our way through the entire book -- 37 chapters -- taking a chapter a week.  This past Wednesday we looked at the first chapter, "What does it mean to be religious?"

In this chapter Scott challenges the definition of religion that was prevalent in his day -- the book was published in '49 -- and which is still the majority's understanding:  that religion has to do with holding certain beliefs and engaging in certain practices.  Rather, he says,
"Religion is not the invention of priestcraft, neither is it given into the custody of any church.  Religion is inherent in our nature and has been the companion of our human kind since the beginning.  ... To be religious is to know that your highest experience is a religious experience.  To be religious is to act your best in the presence of the highest you know. ... To be religious is to take the high road when the low road beckons.  To be religious is to seek by every means of inquiry and of investigation for the truths that come not by magic or miracle, but by the only means for their reception -- the open, the eager, and the humble mind."
Earlier, in a passage that appealed to most of us, he write:
"As a matter of fact, no preacher, priest, bishop, or other professionally religious person has any inside information.  Truth is discovered by the ministers of religion.  It is also discovered by scientists, poets, prophets, garage mechanics, and housewives."
Sounds kind of like the stance of Unitarian Universalism 65 years later, no?  As he French say (and yes, I had to look this up):  plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  (The more it changes, the more it's the same thing.)

Another passage that stood out to us because of its apt description not just of his day but of ours:\
"[O]n any week except Christmas and Easter, if we were to count all the people who attend churches -- men, women, youth, and children -- the total would be less than the number of persons -- men, women, youth, and children -- who attend no religious services."
We may see the large number of "nones" as a relatively new phenomenon, yet it's clear that we're not the first to experience it.  And as for the "spiritual but not religious" dichotomy?  I think that the way Scott understands religion could serve as a bridge.

Pax tecum,


Friday, June 06, 2014

What is "Enough"?

In the UUA's new curriculum The Wi$dom Path:  money, spirit and life, there is an interesting graphic.  It's called "The Fulfillment Curve."  The intention of this image is to suggest that if you graph the money a person spends along the x axis of a graph, and the level of personal fulfillment along the y axis, that the resultant graph would form a parabola.  Along the upward part of the curve you would pass through the point at which you have taken care of your survival needs, and the point where you have taken care of comforts.  At the peak you reach a point of "enough," after which increased spending results in a decline in fulfillment.

It is interesting to consider if this is necessarily true.  I believe it is, by the way, but I can imagine someone arguing that this would create a straight line graph, onward and upward forever.  Interesting, too, where that "enough" point would be located.  Is it a fixed point, or would it be dependent on other variables?  Might a middle-class family of five living in an upscale neighborhood, for instance, place it at a different spot than would, say, a Franciscan friar?  More precisely, I'd imagine that the "enough" point would remain in the same relative place -- at the top of the arc -- but the shape of the curve might be different.  It might be flatter for some and "spikier" for others.

But that's not what made this graphic interesting to me when I first saw it.  I imagined a similar graph, but while this one still has a sense of fulfillment along the y axis, it has "Congregational Size" along the x.  In other words, I found myself wondering if there would be a point at which congregational growth -- at least its numerical growth -- would reach an "enough" point and that from that point on more members equaled less fulfillment.

This is, I know, a bit of a heresy.  "Grow or die," we are told.  "Increase or decrease" -- this dichotomy is declared as if self-evident.  Yet I wonder.

I know that church growth consultants have long offered ways of understanding that congregations of different sizes are different not just in size -- so called "family," "pastoral," and "program" congregations need to have different organizational systems, are able to do different things, and have a different "feel."  That they are not merely different sizes, that they are different "animals," if you will, is why one consultant has described them as "cats," "small dogs," "large dogs," "gardens," and "farms."  The popular wisdom is that as long as you can navigate the real differences there is no reason that a small family-sized church (cat) can't grow into a mega-church (farm).

But should it?  Is there an "enough" point?  I've heard that congregations within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints do not grow beyond 300 members -- once they approach that threshold they birth a new congregation.  

As I say ... I wonder.  I don't know.  But I'd be interested in hearing what you think.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, June 04, 2014

What to do now?

(c) 2004 The Center for Economic and Social Justice
The fourth of the Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism, as articulated by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh for the Order of Interbeing, is this:
"Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world."  
Over the past few years I've been doing increasingly more of precisely this, albeit, I must confess, primarily from the safety of my home.  Even so, I have had my head and my heart stretched wider than I'd thought they could be.

While I was still in my position at UUHQ, we were gearing up for a "common read" of The Death of Josseline:  Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands by Margaret Regan.  The stories she relates make all too painfully human the face(s) of the battle over illegal immigration. Principles and policies are exposed as really being very much beside the point -- human suffering on a scale nearly unimaginable (at least by me, then) is what's ultimately at issue here. How can you read stories like these and not take them in?  And having taken them in to your heart, how can you be the same?

About a year later, in the summer of 2012, someone turned me on to the book Take This Bread: a radical conversion by Sarah Miles.  This is the story of how a self-described "lesbian left-wing journalist" (and professed atheist) came to a deep connection to a religious/spiritual understanding she'd never known, in a Christianity she'd never imagined.  The vehicle for this was her work through the food pantry program at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.  Her book is a beautiful spiritual memoir, and this dimension touched me deeply.  But she also provides a window into the world of urban poverty (at least as experienced by this woman, in that place, at that time).  Again, humanizing what can so easily be for so many of us something of an abstraction. And oh man, was it inspiring to see how love can be made palpable and what it then can do!

Near the end of that year came The New Jim Crow: mass incaration in the age of colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.  This one was not so much inspiring as enraging.  Alexander rather convincingly makes the case that our current system of mass incarceration -- largely synonymous with our "war on drugs" -- is an intentionally designed new strategy in an age-old effort.  Slavery maintained a very clear caste system in our country, based on race.  With the end of slavery, Jim Crow laws were enacted which perpetuated essentially that same caste system.  Once Jim Crow was overturned some new mechanism was needed, and the war on drugs was born.  She did not provide as many moving narratives, but her clear and convincing arguments made me see differently when I encountered people here in Charlottesville who'd been caught up in this system.

2014 started off with me watching the movie Dark Days, a documentary film by Marc Singer.  (This was quickly followed by watching the documentary short called Fragile Dwellings, based on the work of Margaret Morton, which was included as an extra on the DVD of Dark Days.  In quick succession, I then read Teun Voehoten's Tunnel People, and two of Morton's books -- The Tunnel:  the underground homeless of New York City and Fragile Dwelling, the print version of the short I'd watched earlier.) All of these tell the stories of some of the unhoused women and men who came to make their homes in a stretch of deserted Amtrak tunnel beneath the streets of New York City.  Once more human beings took root in my heart instead of simply finding more concepts in my head. "The homeless" had a more human face. 

This past month I read Tattoos on the Heart:  the power of boundless compassion, by Gregory Boyles.  Fr. Boyles -- known affectionately as "G" by the people with whom he lives and works -- tells story after story about the ways he has found God, and ways he has found to share God, in and with the gang youth of one of LA's most gang-ridden neighborhoods. It is astonishing to me that anyone's heart and psyche could survive the kind of ministry he's found himself called to do, yet perhaps not so surprisingly his testimony is that the "secret of his success" has been in his refusal to see labels and, instead, to be with these youth. His humanity meets their humanity, and they embrace each other.

And now I have just finished reading Finding God in a Bag of Groceries:  sharing food, discovering grace, by Laura Willis.  This time it's the story of rural poverty -- 'though again it's the ministry of a food bank at work -- and once more I've found myself looking into a world I could not have even fully imagined, so different is it from my own, yet finding there more of the "we" that is revealed when we let go of divisions between "us" and "them."

From undocumented immigrants in the southwest, to the urban poor in San Francisco, to people of color caught up in a (legal) system of oppression and dehumanization through the US, to homeless women and men making homes for themselves among society's refuse in NYC, to inner city gang youth in LA, to the urban poor in Tennessee -- it's been quite a ride. I've "seen" things, and been allowed to "listen in" to experiences so radically different than my own, than any I've known. 

And yet, what has struck me most is not the differences; it's the common humanity all of us share. One thread that runs through all of these books and films is that our guides into these "other worlds" recognize, witness to, and affirm what we Unitarian Universalists refer to as, "the inherent worth and dignity of every person."  (Often said as if we, alone, understood that phrase!)  Over and over again the message is the same one I preach so often -- there is no "us" and "them" ... there is only "we."

So a question rises up in me -- what to do now?  How can I -- and how can we as a faith community committed to ending oppression and affirming the inherint worth and dignity of all beings -- respond? That's a question I hope we'll all wrestle with, dance with, for a good long time.

Pax tecum,