Monday, February 08, 2016

We Are a People of Desire

This is the sermon I delievered on Sunday, February 7, 2016 at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  As always, you can listen to the podcast.

This morning I want to talk about “nones.”  That’s right, “nones.”  If you think about it, “nones” have a lot to tell us about who we are as Unitarian Universalists.  In fact, “nones” might be the ones to help us see more clearly how it is that we are a “people of desire.”

If you’re here this morning without having first read the description of the service in our monthly Bulletin or online, you might think that I’ve been talking about “nuns,” when, actually, I’ve been talking about “nones.”  The first – n-u-n-s – refers to women who have taken monastic vows, Catholic or Buddhist, for instance.  I’m not talking about them.  The group I am talking about – n-o-n-e-s – are those who in surveys identify as atheists or agnostics or those who say that they are “spiritual but not religious.”  In other words, they’re the group that when pollsters ask what religious affiliation they have, answer “none.”  [NOTE:  this who section works better if you're hearing, rather than reading, the sermon!]

According to a recent Pew Research study these nones make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population.  The last time they did a similar study, in 2007, the nones came in at only 16%.  That means that in about 7 years the number of people who choose “none” among all of the religious choices out there has risen 7%.  (Interestingly, during that same period, the number of U.S. adults who identify themselves as “Christian” has fallen by just about 7%.)  Nones are by far the fastest growing religious identity in our country.

There are those among our own flock, Unitarian Universalists, who see in this “rise of the nones” an opportunity – after all, this growing number of unaffiliated folk share many of our values: 
  • ·    they are not particularly interested in creeds and dogma;
  • ·    they don’t believe that any one book or any one holy person has all the answers;
  • ·    they think that there may very well be some truth in each of humanity’s various religions;
  • ·    they like to think for themselves;
  • ·    they don’t think that there is only one path;
  • ·    they don’t think of themselves as “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” nor do they think that they are particularly in need of saving;
  • ·    and they’re not all that interested in organized religion. 
Sounds a lot like … well … us, doesn’t it?  (Don’t forget – Unitarian Universalism has sometimes been described as the religion for people who don’t like organized religion.)  And it’s because these nones are in so many ways free-thinkers like ourselves, there are some who see an opportunity for growing our congregations and our movement if only we could appeal to these folks and help them to see that we might be what they’re looking for.  After all, how many of us came to Unitarian Universalism at some point in our lives having had no idea that there was a faith like ours?  How many of us wished we’d heard about us sooner?

Many of our congregations are making a concerted effort to reach out to these nones. One of our congregations in Chicago, for instance, the Beverly Unitarian Church, has a page on their website with the heading, “Do you feel as if you've lost your faith but still yearn for a religious community where you will be accepted as you are....?”  Here’s what it says:
  • Do you feel as if you’ve lost your faith?
  • Can you no longer believe the religious doctrines you were taught to believe?
  • Have you rejected the notion of a wrathful God, a God whom you should fear, a God who would punish you for your sins, or for not believing in him?
  • Have you been taken to task for having “wrong” beliefs?
  • Are you possibly seeking a religious community that embraces and celebrates diversity of many kinds, and where you will be accepted for who you are?
  • Are you seeking a religious community in which you can follow the dictates of your own reason and conscience?
  • Are you seeking a place where you can open your mind and heart to whatever is inspiring, sustaining, transforming and redeeming in life, without dogma and orthodoxy?
  • Are you seeking a place where you can engage in a free and responsible search for religious truth, supported by others who are doing this as well?
  • Are you seeking a religious community that takes the problems and possibilities of this world seriously, and tries actively to help heal and sustain it?
  • If so, you may be one of us.

Sounds like a lot of us, doesn’t it?  And sounds like could describe a lot of these nones, doesn’t it?  Yet here’s an interesting thing.  When the folks at Pew asked, “Are you looking for a religion that would be right for you?”

2% of nones said that they didn’t know or simply refused to answer the question;
10% said that they are looking;
88% said that they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them.

And this is not because the nones are not “religious” or “spiritual” in one way or another.  According to the Pew Research findings, 

“two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.”

And yet, nearly 90% of these nones – these people who say they have no religious affiliation – also say that they are not looking for a religion that would fit with their values and their lives.  They are decidedly, determinedly uninterested in organized religion of any kind, even one as dis­-organized as ours.

And this is why I said that these folk have something to show us about who we are as “a people of desire.” Let’s go back to that webpage from the Beverly Unitarian Church:  “Do you feel as if you've lost your faith but still yearn for a religious community where you will be accepted as you are....?”  Did you hear that?  “Do you yearn for a religious community where you will be accepted as you are?”  “Do you … yearn …?”  More than half of the nine questions that follow begin with the phrase, “Are you seeking …?”  Yearning.  Seeking.  These are words about desire.  Do you, with all you believe and don’t believe about religion and religious institutions, desire something?

It was one of our Worship Weavers who proposed this topic as a way of addressing our month’s theme – “What does it mean to be a people of desire?”  He said, “Yes.  In a lot of ways we’re just like these nones … yet we are here.  It must be because we desire something that we think we can find here.”  And, I’d add based on so many conversations over the years, something we think we can find only here.

This week I got into a discussion with a number of colleagues across the country about just what it is that our movement is all about.  It was sparked by an encounter I’d had with a UU in California, I think, on their minister’s Facebook page.  The depth of this person’s anti-Christian bigotry was, to me, alarming, and so counter to what I take to be our core Unitarian Universalist stance of endless curiosity.  (And I've heard the same kind of religious bigotry -- I have no other words for it -- expressed toward atheists, and pagans, and other folks both within our community and in the wider world.) And such sentiments are so closed minded; so judgmental; so condemning.  And, honestly, it made me despair a little.

When I brought this despair to a wider circle of colleagues someone said, essentially, that there are so many people who have found our movement after being seriously wounded by some other religious traditions that we are, in many ways, a spiritual hospital for the healing of the spiritually wounded.  My response?  (And remember, I was at the time despairing of the future of our Grand Experiment.)  My response was to say that I feel like a lot of people come into our “spiritual hospitals” not for any kind of healing, but because they want to buy a newspaper in our gift shop, or get something to eat in the cafeteria, or just to get out of the rain.  A lot of people in a lot of our congregations have come to this movement as a way of avoiding religion rather than engaging in it.

And yet, they’ve come.  For whatever reason, you and I are here this morning.  Some may be trying to get out of the rain, some may be wanting their biases affirmed and left unchallenged, some may be wanting to salve the wounds that the religious experiences of their past have caused them so that they can see their spirits flourish, and some are here because they want to celebrate the beauty of life and there is nowhere else where they can do it so authentically.  And as Jeanine's reading reminds us,

"Ours is very definitely a different kind of church, which requires a different kind of definition. 

Yet, let there be no mistake about the fact that the Unitarian Universalist fellowship is a purposeful, positive, organized relations movement, dedicated to the spiritual, moral, and social fulfillment of the gift of life.”

We come together day in and day out, week after week, through the ongoing years, because we Unitarian Universalists desire what we can find only in communities like this – and for us here this morning, only in this particular and specific community.

So what of that Hoopoe bird, and his insistence that the flock travel that long and dangerous journey to discover what he could have told them at the beginning – that “each of them had something good and strong and special inside of them and that each [of them] had gifts to bring to the community,” that “they were all that was needed to keep the community strong,” and that the wisdom they needed,  the belief that each of them was important (no matter how big or small), the caring friendship they yearned for, and the safety they sought was all in their own hands?

He, like we, know that it is only community that can show us the power of community, and only community can guide us, and support us, and encourage us on that journey from where we are now to where we know we need (and sometimes even want!) to go.  This is what we, as a people of desire, desire:  that guidance, that support, that encouragement, and that companionship.

And so we are here.  Hallelujah, we are here.

Pax tecum,


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1 comment:

RevWik said...

I received an email with the following correction/clarification:

"I noticed you said that the percentage of "nones" had climbed 7% from 16% to 23% since the last Pew count. In fact, although the percentage points have increased by 7, I believe the percentage of increase in nones over 16% is actually a wopping 45%! Which is a lot more dramatic than 7%. (7 is 45% of 16.)"

Point taken (pun intended).