The Rick Warren Bru-ha-ha

December 20, 2008

I am of two minds on the Rick Warren matter.

My first reaction is to say, “Look, I don’t like the guy either. I don’t agree with his theology. I don’t agree with his politics. But it isn’t like he was chosen to be the minister-in-chief or something. He is giving an invocation. I know it has a lot of symbolic meaning, but it doesn’t have any practical consequences in and of itself. It is a gesture of the president elect to say, ‘I am not a president only to progressives or to liberals, but a president to the whole country.’ And, there are big parts of the country that can identify with Rev. Rick Warren. And, as conservative evangelical pastors go, he is one of the less offensive ones who has at least made some overtures toward changing the tone of the rhetoric. My hope is that it is a gesture that will soften the hearts of those who would tend to be more opposed to Obama and his policies. It will not solve many problems, but it is a gesture of unity, which people are always talking about. You know, one country, working out our differences and that sort of thing. By saying all of this, I don’t mean to say that I don’t understand why people don’t like it. Heck, I don’t like it either. But I see it as a strategic move that may help in the long run with things that matter more than who gives the invocation at the inauguration.” (It is of course another matter whether there should be invocations and benedictions at inaugurations anyway.)

That said, it occurred to me how often discrimination against women or the GLBTQ community can often be chalked up to theology, while few people will stand for discrimination against ethnic minorities chalked up to theology. I try to imagine if someone gave the invocation that said that they still supported slavery based on theology. Or that women should obey thier husbands based on theology (heck, Warren may agree with the second of those statements). What would it mean to have someone give the invocation as a gesture of unity and goodwill who was known to support legalized discrimination against women – that they should get paid less, that rape should be less of a crime, that they should not have inheritance rights? Hmm. No matter how symbolic or strategic that would be, I would be feeling really unhappy about this. So then I started rethinking what I said above.

And now I just don’t know. The thing is, so many of these difficult issues are totally intrackable. “We” dig in our heals. “They” dig in their heels. We write on our blogs about why we are right. We affirm each other at our churches about why we are right. We are smug. We know whose side God is on. And where does this get us? What is the way forward toward better understanding each other, finding common ground to work on together, even, dare I say it, finding areas where compromise makes sense. I am not talking about any particular issue, but rather all of these very intense social and political issues that are so close to our hearts – all of our hearts – and where it seems so difficult to move forward.

I’m guessing having Rick Warren give the invocation at the inauguration isn’t the answer. But I wish we could come up with a better one that just insisting on how right and just we are and getting offended and indignant. Not that I am somehow immune to this. I do it to. But there must be a better way…

Hard Decisions in Mentoring

March 6, 2008

One of the young men I mentor has been having a hard time – went one year away to college but it was too far from home and too expensive (do you know how hard it is to be away at college when your family doesn’t have a car to give you or to come and get you with or spending money to give you?). Came back, took classes at a community college but had a hard time living with his mom, around all his old friends, having to work a lot to pay part of the rent to his mom, and such. It isn’t that it wasn’t do-able, its just that it didn’t work well for him. He isn’t Mr. Hero perfect, you know? Like a lot of middle class white kids, he’s bright, not brilliant, a hard-worker, but not a super-achiever. But many middle class white kids have parents to help pay for college. And parent who went to college and are familiar with the system. It is a hard system to figure out if you are the first one to do it and most of your friends aren’t doing it.

So, we’re brainstorming, talking, thinking about what to do and he says he’s thinking of joining the service.

What in the world am I supposed to say? It breaks me apart inside to think of him being in harm’s way. But it would sure make things a hell of a lot easier – we both agreed that the disciplined environment would be good for him. The job and plan would be good. The place to live would be good. Did I mention how nice it would be for him to have a job, training, money for college, and a plan and discipline?

Oh, yeah, except that that there is a war going on.

I don’t want people yelling at him or putting him in harm’s way. I don’t want him to have to be a soldier to make it in the world.

But who am I to get on my liberal high horse about the military and wars. Not that what I say is the be all, end all, but I do influence him and I don’t know what to do. Can I offer him money for school? Can ANY of the well-off “we love kids and Jesus so much” people at the after-school program where I met him give him money for school? Apparently they are paying off the mortgages of their McMansions and swimming pools in gated neighborhoods and buying new big video screen projectors for the new youth center they just built at church so no they can’t help, apparently.

I once made a really really bad call in advising one of my young mentees when he was only 16. Maybe a different approach on my part could have made a difference, maybe not, but the point was that I made a bad decision not recognizing the full weight of my opinion and the consequences of the situation.

Damn. I don’t want to do that again. And it is such a hard thing. Sure, college might/could work without the military. But it will be way harder and a clearly rocky path as the last two years have shown us.

But then again being dead or injured is sort of a bad option too.

Ugg. Again, no good answers. And none of those Jesus-loving, big-hearted, super-rich Christians who started this afterschool program around to help either. Sorry if I sound bitter. But for all the freaking electrical equipment they buy to recruit suburbanites to come to their megachurch, no one has ever suggested maybe super-huge scholarship fund (like the super-huge everything else this church has) for the kids in the afterschool program might be a good idea. Which would be real helpful right about now.

Maybe I am a charasmatic UU?

October 1, 2007

So the search for a home church is on. It is so much harder than I thought it would be and brings up all sorts of issues. One of the main ones is: I want to want to go to my church. I don’t want to go to church because I should join a church. I don’t need to be ultimately fulfilled each and every Sunday. Everything does not have to be perfect, but I need to find a church that I am excited to go to. And for this to work, I need to feel something during worship. And I need to feel welcome and not awkward. This has both to do with me and my mindset, as well as the way churches are. This brings me back to my megachurch days where there was a whole team of people trying to make church welcoming and enjoyable and they did a great job. I know that this can cross the line and turn into “church lite” or all warm fuzzy feelings without grappling with the hard challenges. But, for me, it didn’t. What it meant is that I could bring my coffee to worship with me, people were friendly and nice to me, I could sing along with the songs and feel them, and I could even get so excited about a song or about something that was being said that I could put my hand up in the air and say “amen!” All the prayers were not written out – they came from people’s hearts right then and there. And the sermons were not all written out – they were not polished or perfect, but they were more spontaneous. There was a sense that we didn’t have to control everything, or think everything out, and we could give some of ourselves, even recklessly give ourselves, over to some power that was awesome and overwhelming. I am not trying to hark back to the good old days of megachurch life – there were lots of problems with it too. But I guess what I am trying to express is a desire for something more charismatic. For something to get lost in and overwhelmed by. For something more welcoming and less stifled feeling. It sucks so much feeling like an outsider each Sunday. Is there a way to make visitors not feel like outsiders? Maybe it is impossible. I don’t know.

It is important for me to stress the balance here – this is not meant to be some sort of indictment of Unitarian Universalism. I feel like too often individuals’ struggles with an aspect of UUism turns into a “Gosh, UUism can’t get anything right.” So I don’t mean to imply that there is some sort of crisis and we need to rethink everything. I suppose I am reflecting on whether or not I am longing for something that we are not. For me, and others that want get overwhelmed by God and lost in the spirit and warmly welcomed by people who really seem to want us there, is this just something we need to find somewhere else? Or can this be us? Or is it asking us to be too many things to too many different people?

p.s. Afterthought: I wonder if this has more to do with being in New England than being in Unitarian Universalist churches? Or, if it has more to do with me feeling more at home in churches that are like the one I grew up with and it is really about me and not the churches I’m visiting? Probably all of this plays into it.

Megachurch talk over at LoFi Tribe

August 15, 2006

Lots of great church talk out there… and two posts in two days saying that liberal religious traditions might want to take a look at what conservative religious traditions are doing. Not in the sense of indoctrination (of course) but in terms of how megachurches and evangelical and fundamentalist Christian communities in general are growing because (I think) they are meeting people’s needs in some ways. Some of these ways religious liberals will never be able to match (we just can’t give you absolute, for certain answers about the nature of the universe), but some things we might be able to do. But that is another post. Or a past post, really.

The first “church talk” going on out there was over at The Journey on testimonies from yesterday, and today the post on megachurches over at LoFi Tribe where Shawn Anthony offers a few notes re: mega Churches and the philosophy of ministry so characteristic of them. He points out the the only reason for their success is not because it leads believers (attenders) to have an emotional experience. Agreed, this is not the only reason and it is perhaps an overemphasized reason – things are both more complex and more strategic than “just” emotion. But it is a pretty significant factor, in my opinion. Head over his blog to read more about megachurches. Based on my years in high school at a megachurch, he is pretty on target.

Things I Learned in My Megachurch Youth Group

July 8, 2006

When I was in high school I was in a big youth group. 300 students grades 7-12. It wasn’t quite a megachurch compared to the ones these days, but at the time it was really big. Megachurch-ish. I learned A LOT of stuff in the three years that I was involved (ages 14-17). In fact, it was one of the most shaping experiences of my life. It was not perfect of course. But I was thinking about this as I am painting my living room because I spent a lot of time in the youth group painting. Here are some of the things I learned that I have time to write while I take a break from painting.

1. Painting and other “mundane” tasks are a really good time to think and relax and talk to God. When I am stressed, I look for something to paint. My youth pastor once asked me while we were building a house in Appalachia what God was saying to me (insert divine or spirit of life here if it works better for you – you know what I mean). I said God didn’t talk to me and my youth pastor said maybe I wasn’t listening and so every since I’ve listened and heard.

2. Youth groups are not about “having fun.” In the time I was in the youth group, my discipleship group (like a covenant group) painted houses indoor and out in the sweltering heat all summer long at “work projects” that were sort of like “summer camp” only a unique version of it, I spent my afterschool time tutoring kids, went on trips to Mexico and Jamaica to do work for a school and an orphanage (and paid for the trips myself which was required), rehabed an entire Brownstone in New York City in six weeks, built houses in Appalachia and spent many Saturdays spraying insulation in disgusting and gross attics to insulate the homes of low-income families. We did “fun” things in between this, but what drew me to the group was that I was doing something for others while at the same time learning so much. It was never like we were doing a great favor to these communities, but rather we were doing what we were called to do as part of humanity and as people of faith, and we were privileged to be able to learn from the communities that we were invited to serve with. I felt honored in a way that my youth group leaders didn’t think all teenagers wanted to do was to be entertained but knew that we could work hard and make a difference in the world. And we did. And we still did “fun” things too, but as a side thing not as our “purpose.” Ah! There is the key term. We had a purpose. And it wasn’t pizza parties.

3. Spiritual life is hard. It is about how we live together in community and in our world, and in relationship to the divine. Maybe I thrive on high expectations, but I guess 300 other kids did too. I liked that it wasn’t all about making ourselves feel good or our own personal pursuit of happiness or finding ourselves, but it was about learning how to connect to something beyond ourselves and live out that promise that we made by becoming Christians. Even though this isn’t how I think of my spirituality anymore, I think that the Unitarian Universalist concept of covenant is equal to this – we are living out a covenant to each other and to the divine. It is a promise. It is a commitment. And it is hard. I am glad that I was prepared for the hard yet rewarding work of spiritual life and covenantal living early on.

4. Don’t be to serious. We do our thing – spiritual, community, worship, service – but we never think that the way we are doing it is perfect or the only way to do it. Maybe it won’t work for everyone and maybe we’ll make stupid mistakes. God has a sense of humor and we are journeying along with the divine in a loving and learning relationship. Learn to laugh at ourselves, our mistakes, even laugh at the cool things about ourselves.

5. Think outside the box. You don’t have to do “church” like everyone else does church or just because it has always been done that way. In fact, you should rethink how it has always been done.

6. Numbers are not the most important thing, but if no one comes to your youth group, that is a problem. Don’t get hung up on growing, but realize that you can’t reach anyone if no one is willing to make time for it. And they can make time if they want. Oh, and that reminds me an overall thing that I learned – we make time for what is important for us. That should include God or a spiritual life. You can do it if you want. Be creative. For instance, see number 1 – talking to god while painting. Or cooking dinner. Or whatever.

7. If you save money for something yourself, you learn lessons and appreciate what you saved the money for. I had to save money for my trips with the youth group by not buying clothes and doing extra chores. I learned I didn’t need so many extra clothes (really, the start of a more simple approach to living life) and really made the trip worth it because it cost my own money.

Oooo, sometimes things get longer than I mean them too. Sorry. But there you go. If you have made it this far….

I hope this doesn’t sound preachy. I really know little about how UU youth groups run and obviously this is not meant to contradict how things in UU youth groups run, I just know that I learned a lot from youth group when I was in high school and wanted to share for those that might be able to learn from my experience.

Back to painting. Elizabeth :)