When the Truth Does Not Set Us Free

July 20, 2015

When the Truth Does Not Set Us Free
Preached July 19, 2015
at Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green

In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt writes about an experiment that was trying to get a sense of why people make the decisions that they do. Subjects in the experiment were offered two dollars if they would sign a piece of paper that said:

I [name goes here] hereby sell my soul, after my death to the leader of this experiment for the sum of $2.

If they signed the paper, they got $2. There was a line for the subjects to sign and under that line it read: “This form is part of an a psychology experiment. It is not a legal or binding contract in any way.”

They were told that they could rip the paper up as soon as they signed it and still get their two dollars. Yet only 23 percent of the subjects were willing to sign the paper. After some pressing from the experiment leader, another 17% were willing to sign the paper, but that still meant that 50% of folks were not willing to sign a meaningless paper.

When the experimenter asked people why they wouldn’t sign it – knowing that it could not possibly be real or binding, most people couldn’t really explain it. Even several atheists who didn’t even believe in souls said they just didn’t feel right signing it.

Haidt recounts other experiments like this. In some, the researchers control for plausible good reasons not to do something, and then ask people to do it, like the sign your soul away experiment. There was also one where a dead cockroach was sterilized, and quickly dipped down in some water and then out again. People were offered money to drink the water, and few would, despite the fact the researchers assured them and explained how it was impossible for any germs or cockroach pieces to be in the water.

In other experiments, they construct stories and scenarios where people do things that just “seem” wrong even though the researchers are careful to construct the stories so that there are no actually harmful consequences. Yet people continue to refuse to do things even when they cannot explain why and continue to insist that something is right or wrong just based on how it seems to them, without being able to offer plausible reasons.

It raises the important question about why we do or don’t do unreasonable things, or things that seem to make sense.

This matters to us for a couple reasons. First, most of us know people who make decisions that seem atrocious. They live lives that seem unreasonable to us, off the wall, abhorrent, or just plain wrong. We think to ourselves, “There are obvious reasons for them not to believe that or do that and they do it anyway!?!?” We also may think this about some politicians who take positions or make decisions that appear to make no sense whatsoever. While sometimes this can be attributed to pandering to their base, often it seems that the positions they take or decisions they make don’t even help them strategically. They just seem to be unreasonable positions with no apparent strategic benefit either.

So it is important – as individuals and as a church – to think about how we might respond to people when reason is not enough.

And, it may or may not be the case that some of us look at ourselves and give ourselves a little pat on the back and think to ourselves, “Good thing we are reasonable and have thought out all the pros and cons of this or that and come to a calm, measured decision about things.”

Yet, for some of us, for those non-saints among us today, we actually may have a few things in our life that we do that are counter to reason. Where we know the right thing to do, the right way to act, the right thing to say, what we really should be doing, and yet we do something different.

It might be as benign as, for instance, procrastination where we know there will be negative consequences for us in the future that outweigh the short term relief we get from putting something off. We know what the consequences will be. We know we will have to stay up late, and be tired the next day. We even know we will regret it, and yet we keep on waiting to write that memo, do the dishes, write that paper – or sermon – or make that phone call that we need to take care of.

The list goes on – we know that we are destroying our environment, but our actions are often, at best, slightly out of our comfort zone, and often they are simply token. This is both on an individual level – those of us in the room know that we live in houses that are bigger than is fair in terms of energy consumption… those of use who drive and fly more than our share, pumping out our greenhouse gasses by the ton.

And on a collective level – we want the economy to keep growing, we as a people want to live comfortable decent lives, and we kind of have this gnawing feeling that what we are doing is melting those polar ice caps, not to mention keeping lots of people in developing countries in slave-like working conditions to feed our hunger for affordable clothes from Target, yet… yet… yet… we kind of keep living mostly how we live, hoping that our diligent recycling efforts and occasional donation or protests or online petition signing on Facebook will atone for a life we know has dire consequences for others – today and in the future.

And so the question remains: what are we to do? We see others making terrible decisions that seem to defy logic and reasonableness, and yet also we ourselves are often not able to resist the sirens of a comfortable life, of addiction, of dishonesty, of yelling when it feels good even when it hurts others, of self-righteousness arrogance, of our knowledge that we know, and others do not.

The little voice in the back of our head tells us to stop, to change, to do better, yet we stuff it down, quiet it, we feel guilty and then ease our guilt with more of the same, or perhaps we have ignored it so long, that we cannot even hear that voice inside of us.

Haidt makes the argument that we are two: we are an elephant and we are a rider on that elephant. The rider on the elephant is a logical reasoning, the little itty bitty rider, and the elephant – the big big elephant – is our intuitive reasoning, our gut, our accumulated patterns of thinking and being. Haidt makes the argument that the rider often likes to think that he or she is driving the elephant around, telling him or her where to go, and occasionally maybe, it is true the rational rider can manage to get the elephant to do a thing here or a thing there. But, Haidt makes the argument that mostly the elephant is in control and our reasoning rider often believes himself or herself to be driving the elephant, but that neurologically the intuitive elephant is running the show, with the rational reasoning following our intuitive reasoning just a split second behind. Haidt makes the argument that the rider is a most often a function of the elephant. Almost as if the elephant walks to the right and the rider thinks, “Ah, yes, to the right. That’s where we need to go.” It happens so fast we don’t even realize the order it happens in.

Mostly, Haidt says, despite our fetishization of enlightenment rationality, we are what Hume called a slave to our passions. It is not that we don’t reason, but more like reason is not really a judge or teacher, weighing the evidence or guiding us to greater understanding. Rather reason is more like an attorney or a press secretary, justifying our actions and our intuitions.

There is an organization called The Frameworks Institute and they do a lot of good work with this idea. They point out that “when the facts don’t fit people’s frames, often they will changes the facts, not the frame.” That is, our feeling about what is right is so strong, our intuition – our elephant – is so powerful that when facts contradict it, people ignore the facts, they change the facts, not their frameworks and habits of thinking.

If we look at the environmental movement, it is a perfect example. For years, scientists have been telling us about the melting, the rising sea levels, the concerning weather patterns, the fact that Bangladesh will be fully under water in the lifetime of our children. They provide models, graphs, charts, studies. And yet. Go out on the streets of Bowling Green and people will tell you that global climate disruption is not a thing. It is an invention. Things are fine.

And yet, even those of us that believe that this is true, continue to live as if it isn’t so, ignoring the calls that radical change across large swaths of humanity is essential if we are to avert the destruction of the world as we know and instead we take our baby steps, hoping it is enough, but knowing that it probably isn’t.

We – we here – and we out there – are not an overall rational reasonable people despite our wishes.

And one thing that we often do is to tell ourselves that we – we good ones, we educated ones, we who listen to NPR and read The New York Times – we are different than those people out there. Yet, I want to suggest this morning that that kind of thinking simply worsens our predicament. It makes us feel good, yes, but it contributes to an us and a them, the good ones and the fallen ones, the wise ones and the unknowing ones – the very kind of separation and exclusion that so many of us have experienced in other contexts in our lives when we were told that we were other. That we were not enough. That we were not good.

I want to suggest this morning that in one way or another, we are all wrapped up in what Foucault calls the divine spectacle of humanity’s madness. But! You protest! Just like Alice in Wonderland, ““But I don’t want to go among mad people!””

Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Our madness takes different forms, yes, but we are all, in one way or another, riders on our elephants, struggling to wrestle a little control over our lives, over our collective future. Grappling to make meaning in a world that often seems mad.

And, so, again, we return: what are we to do?

The answer, of course, is not to throw up our hands and decide that reason and rationality have no place in the world. That data doesn’t matter. That our gut feelings are always right, that our collective madness is the best that we can do, but I want to suggest that we take reason and rationality off of its pedestal and realize that our world will change and our own lives will change when we realize that information is never enough and the best data will not save us. Despite our desperate wishes, the truth – or even THE TRUTH – will not set us free.

Reason is never enough because we – we in here and we out there – are a complex nexus of rider and elephants, of head and heart, of body and soul and mind and we – we who are here, we who fly gay pride flags, we who fly confederate flags, and we who fly American flags, we who support gay marriage, we who do not, we are all in this together. We are all trying to make our way in a broken, messed up confusing world where things are not fair, where things are not rational and where it feels so good to make an us and a them, a right people and a wrong people, a rational, reasonable people and those other people.

But we are all mad, my friends. We are all woven into this mad world, making decisions that do not make sense, and no matter how right we think we are, being right is not enough. Being right feels good, but being right is not a strategy to get to the world we long for.

In my classes, my students and I do deliberations. We take a contentious issue and have a short guide that frames three different options, outlining the position and then the tradeoffs of each position. The guides are designed to give a fair hearing to different viewpoints and a fair assessment of the pros and cons of each view. I ask my students, when people make a point, or a claim, even if it seems wrong, or absurd to ask what is behind the statement. You think that everyone should have a gun with them at all times? What values underlie that? What worries underlie that? The person is saying they value security. They are saying they feel insecure. Perhaps they long to feel more powerful. Perhaps they don’t feel safe. They are saying they value certain freedoms. We are not trying to agree or disagree with the values or the feelings that underlie the statement, but to hear them. To hear our neighbor where they are at. To pay attention to their elephant.

My students do not usually leave our deliberations with different viewpoints, but what they do say over and over is that they understand their classmates better. The liberals understand the conservatives better. The conservatives understand the liberals better. They are less other to each other. Which, I believe plants the seeds for hearing each other better. As one of my students said, it seems like in the U.S. we have lost the idea of an us. It seems like there is always a good us and a bad them, but we don’t have an us anymore.

We as individuals and we as a church can dig in our heals. We can insist on being right, on the truth that we know, on reason and rationality as our altar. Yet, if we cannot hear our neighbors – our most “other” neighbors, our confederate flag flying neighbor, our neighbor who thinks we are going to hell, how can we reach the world? How can we do anything but simply preach to the choir. If we are serious that we our faith is not just for some us, we must ask how can we be a church and a faith for all people who need love? Who need to be heard. Who feel like an other.

We do not have to agree with people’s elephants to pay attention to them, to speak to them, to acknowledge them, to tell them that they are inherent worthy and have dignity. And, if we are ever to corral our own elephants in the direction that we would like them to go, we must at least recognize that they are there, to learn perhaps to be friends with them, to recognize that they are part of us.

I wish that we would know the truth and we would be free.

But may we leave today, knowing we are not free. And the truth with not get us there. Freedom is a long, slow journey of learning to love ourselves, of learning to love others in all their messiness and brokenness, of listening, and reflecting, of letting go of our egos and our righteousness. Over and over again.

Perhaps it is the case that we shall never be truly free – not free from suffering, not free from our elephants, no free from our neighbors who seem crazy or drive us crazy.

Pema Chödrön says, “In life, we think that they point is to pass the test, or overcome the problem. Yet the real truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together for a time, and then they fall back apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.”

Perhaps, if we are to taste a little freedom, it will come from this coming together, and falling apart, as individuals, as families, as a church, as a world, and not running from that. Letting go of how right we are, how much better we are, and seeing that we are all in this together, struggling together on this spinning planet to try to eek out something a little more humane, a little more beautiful, a little more worthy our years here. May we show care to ourselves in this messy journey, and care for others, even the most other others.

.

*This sermon is copyrighted. Please do not use in whole or part without permission.

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To Be Seen and Known

August 2, 2013

This sermon was given to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green on July 28th, 2013. A similar version that used the Galatians 2:15-21 was given at First Christian Church of Bowling Green on July 16, 2013. 

When I first started getting involved in my youth group in high school, my first major event was to go on a work trip to Appalachia. We got a handout before we went that provided the rules.

1. Work hard – no complaining!
2. Sleep hard – no staying up all night talking – you need your rest – see rule #1
3. Study hard – We were to learn about the culture and the people of Appalachia and also take part in bible studies.
4. Play hard – after the work, rest, and study, there would be fun activities.

So it was work hard, sleep hard, study hard, play hard. Easy to remember, short and sweet.

The hardest one for me was play hard – I was always somewhat serious and never really very good at games, but I was prepared. I was new to the youth group and I wanted to do the right things. In my efforts to do things right, I started practicing playing. To make sure, you know, I had the hang of it. My dad helped me to spruce up on my basketball, softball and volleyball, and I started running a mile a night to be in good shape for playing.

Some might say I missed the point, but I wanted to be good. I wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to be the last person chosen for a team.

Fast forward to working on the house we were building in Appalachia. I was working with Angie Smith. She had been going to the church since she was born and so I wanted to make sure to do a good job at working hard to impress her. She was one of the popular kids and I was new and unsure of myself. As we were hammering boards she said, “God, it is so hot out here. I wish we could just quit already.

My mouth dropped open. DID SHE NOT READ THE RULES?? She was complaining which was a violation of the first rule and she took the Lord’s name in vain. She violated one of the ten commandments and one of the rules of the mission trip in one fell swoop. I was disheartened. What kind of church was this anyway where people didn’t follow the rules?

And, as you can imagine, this was not the last time that I ran into a church person who was not following their own rules or doing the things that seemed right. I’m not going to ask for raising of hands, but I can bet a lot of have experienced that. Folks in church not living up to what they say is the right way to live.

In fact, I bet most of us have experienced that ourselves. We know what we should do. We know the right things to do. And we don’t do them.

So, the question then becomes, how do we respond to this with ourselves and with others? What happens when we don’t live up to what we say is right?

Many of you might have seen a recent story going around facebook this week. It was found to be a hoax, but it was very widely posted, so much so that it is a story that speaks to a lot of people. The story goes like this:

There is a new pastor called to a church. But instead of getting dressed up on his first day at his new congregation, he dresses up like a homeless man. He goes to the big church and very few people speak to him. He is not treated well. Then, when the leaders of the church announce the new pastor, the minister dressed as a homeless man comes to the front of the church and quotes one of part of the Bible: “whatever you did for one of the least of these, you have done for me.”

He criticizes his congregation for not being kind, for not being welcoming. In essence, he criticizes them for not living out their faith. I think it is easy for ministers – and for congregations – to get into that mode. They surely should have been more welcoming to the man who looked homeless in the congregation. So it wasn’t that he was technically wrong to point that out to them, but the question is if this was the best response. And not to mention maybe not a good way to get off on the right foot if it was your first day called to a new church.

The story clearly spoke to a lot of people – either in that they recognized that their church probably would have done the same thing, and, perhaps for many of us, that we may not have been one of the ones to reach out to the visitor who appeared to be without a home.

And even though that was a Christian church and I know some of you are sitting out there thinking, “So it doesn’t really apply to us…” I have been a part of enough Unitarian Universalist churches to know that we also do this well, in our own ways. Our principles and purposes and sources and our history calls us to an overwhelming task of living ethically and responsibly, loving generously, giving of ourselves, giving of our resources in a world that does not make this easy. And many of us – I would venture to say that all of us – fall short on this. And although we try so very hard to be inclusive and welcoming, we also fall short on this too.

If you listen to Unitarian Universalist sermons around the country – or read blogs – or go to UU dinner parties, there is a sense that we should be doing more. Doing better.

And this, for me, is one of the fundamental questions of the life of our faith. How do we make sense of our repeated failures to live up to our best selves? Our congregations continue to draw in mostly middle and upper middle class people and mostly white people, despite the fact that we would like to be more broadly welcoming. Look at per capita income for churches and denominations in the U.S. Unitarian Universalists are at the very top. We don’t want to let ourselves off the hook – but, at the same time, we cannot guilt ourselves or each other into a life that is aligned with our values. What are we to do?

And I want to suggest this morning that it is not even a matter of trying harder. If you think back to my church trip I went to when I was in high school, I was determined to do well enough that I would be good enough. I wanted to do all the right things – follow all the rules, try as hard as I could!

And, even though the rules of my church trip when I was young are different from the those rules that might be implicit in our faith, make no mistake that there are implicit rules in our faith. There are things that we should say and do so that we look on ourselves as good enough – or on others good enough. Try hanging out with a bunch of UUs and saying that you don’t recycle. That you don’t believe in committee work. Try saying that you are conservative or that you don’t like NPR. Or, like a dear friend UU friend of mine in divinity school, that you pray to saints. We, like all traditions, have our way of doing things, have our way of trying to do good and be good. Trying to be good enough. To save the world and/or to save ourselves.

Another possibility for understanding what church is about is that we aren’t about getting it right. That it is not about just the right theology, that we do the right social justice action, that we just get enough money so that we can then really be the church that we want, but that people come to church and want a church because we want to find a place where we are loved no matter what. Where we are cared for and okay no matter how messed up we are. And that our work is to see each other, to provide a sense of care, of safety, and to seek to know ourselves and each other. There is so often the idea that church is about trying to get life right or affirm that we are living well. That we are not like those other people. Who are hypocrites.

But it seems to me that being a hypocrite is simply part of the human condition. I think of my most deeply held values, and I pretty much am horrible at most of them. It is all I can do to summon the energy to be nice to my family and my students, to get my house reasonably clean, to show up at church sometime, to give money to a few causes I care about, and to get my recycling out the door. My clothes are probably from sweatshops. I use disposable cups all the time. I fly too much. I drive too much. If everyone in the earth consumed as much as I did, we would need three and a half planets. I live a house that is way bigger than I need to survive, while I know people are homeless. I eat more than I need, too much of it processed and too much of it shipped in from other countries with underpaid workers who are exposed to pesticides. I walk by homeless people on the street and I do not give them money. The list goes on.

Many of us try and we try and we are still a mess. We guilt ourselves and we guilt each other to try to be better, and we are still too lonely, people are still hungry, our church still isn’t as big as we want it to be, and the world is still broken.

Brene Brown is a researcher at the University Houston has spent year studying vulnerability. She did a really popular TED talk – an online video with over a million views – and has now written a few books about her research on this. She talks about this idea that we feel we are not good enough as we are, we are scared, we are vulnerable, we don’t want to be embarrassed, or rejected, so we toughen up, we hide, we get better clothes, a better car, we volunteer more, we give more money, we look down on others more, we DO MORE OF THE RIGHT THINGS in order to be okay, in order not to be vulnerable, in order for people not to see what we really are.

And what she found as she studied was that there was no way out of this need to be vulnerable in order to be healthy. To be seen by others, as we are. She actually came at this as a very tough researcher type, attempting to get away from the mushy stuff, qualitative stuff, new age stuff that you get in a lot of research. But through years and years of study, she found there was no way to get around it… to toughen up enough… to fix it. That it was part of the human condition. This fear that we are not enough, that we must do more, be better, try harder, that we have to follow more rules, that the only way through this or out of it, is by entering into it

She talked about shame was a key part of this. We are shameful about who we think we really are, so we hide it. We cover it by knowing more. Getting more. Drinking more. Sleeping with more people. By doing more right things at church. We give more money. There are a million things we do to try to be good. To be better. To be enough.

And she talks about this fear disconnection – if they know who we REALLY are – if you know who I really am – you will not love me. We will not connect. They will not want me. I am not really, if they really knew me, lovable.

We know about shame – the less you talk about it, the more you have it. And let’s be real. Church people are good about not talking about stuff, right? We come here and we nod our heads and we are dying inside. We are in a failing marriage. People don’t like us at our school, at work, in our house. There are affairs. Addictions. We are faking it. We are numbing ourselves with food. With TV. And we come to church and we nod our heads and we are DYING inside, because if they really knew us… if they really knew who we were they would not want me here.

Yet, we find and the research finds doing destructive things to numb ourselves and doing the right things to try to earn our way to goodness have not saved us. They have not made it okay. Brown points out that “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.”

Years and years of trying to doing all the right things and say the right things, and trying harder have not saved us from the pain or from ourselves or from this broken broken world. (Because I have Baptist roots, this is where I have to say, “Can I get an Amen!?”)

And although Brown’s work doesn’t focus on churches per se, I think it has great implications for our churches and for those of in the church. I suggest that her work doesn’t tell us to stop trying to be better. To stop yearning to live out our highest values or to call others to that. Yet, I think she says that call to be better, that yearning and striving and pushing must be preceded by love. By creating space for vulnerability – a space where we can see and know each other where we can authentically connect. People’s messiness that defies rationality or reasonableness. And this is hard for UUs because of our long tradition of fetishizing rationality. If we can just understand it and map it out, then we can do it, right? Yet, there is more.

The philosopher the 17th century Pascal said, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.” And to get at these reasons – the heart reasons – we must begin and return to love. Forgiveness. No matter what. No matter how unkind you are. No matter what a mess you are. No matter how lonely you feel. If you feel ugly. If you are an addict. If you are mean.  Or a liar.

And we have to tell ourselves – WE are still good. You are still good.

You are still enough and the church must say that. No once and not in our mission statement and not just on Sundays and not just to each other or in our handouts but every. Single. day. Because we come here on Sundays for sustenance, but the church is us. We are out there in the world day in and day out and we have to say this not only to ourselves, but to the world.

Brown’s research found, only when we can be vulnerable in our imperfection and in our brokenness, can we connect with others. Can we be real. Can we heal and feel and flourish.

And I know that churches in general do not have a great track record for this, but I think the idea of church CAN be that we can come in, that we welcome, NO MATTER WHAT.

Does this mean we give up on trying to do better? No. But the love, the grace, the safe space of acceptance, where there is space for vulnerability, has to come first… that we cannot even come close to becoming who we are called without the room for vulnerability – to be seen and known – coming FIRST. Making the foundation.

We have to know we already have what it takes because it is already there. No amount of doing things, following rules, or numbing things or running from things, will make it work. That our souls and hearts and lives and potentials are enough now.

In order for connection to happen we have to let ourselves to be seen. We have to quit being ashamed of ourselves. That we aren’t thin enough, successful enough. That we are alone. That we do bad things.    Brown calls vulnerability uncomfortable and scary BUT also goes on to say that this vulnerability is the “birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, love.”

What if people thought of churches as the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love? Where people did not feel shame, but welcome. Welcome to their whole selves. Where there is nothing you can do to be good enough, because you are already good enough?

Imagine how much more healed we would be if that is what churches were? Where we looked at the broken souls, the proud souls, each and every one of us who is putting on a show of ourselves and said – you are not your show. You are not your clothes. Or your politics, or your job. None of that. You are enough.

We try and we fail and we try again to get our minds around this kind of love which is the foundation on which we build. We can’t start with the doing. The doing can only grow once we are willing to believe that we are enough. And not only that we are enough – here in this room – but that we – as in all of us, are enough. The folks at the evangelical church or across the world. The folks down the road from us. Who we work with. Who cut us off in traffic. People that you disagree with. We are all the children of God or of the Divine Wonder whose name we cannot know.

Let us see that in each other. Let us know each other. May we see each other. And in that knowing and seeing, the connections that nourish and change and heal will come.

May it be so. Amen.

 

 

* This material is copyrighted and should not be used without permission and attribution.


Who Is Church For?

March 18, 2012

In a recent online Unitarian Universalist discussion about church growth, someone asked a question about why some parts of Unitarian Universalism are harder explain than “to profess a love for your imaginary friend.” By this, I can only assume that the originator of the post referred to the profession of love for God (or Jesus). This came on the heels of a sermon I recently heard that included an (older) poem by a Unitarian minister that openly made fun of other faiths and made the point how much better Unitarians are than other irrational faiths. And, to top it off, I attended a Unitarian Universalist Christmas concert in December that made fun of important parts of the Christmas story.

I almost cannot breathe when I hear these sorts of things. It is so profoundly dismissive to one’s love of God to say “love of your imaginary friend.” I certainly do not take these thoughtless and dismissive comments personally. I am more concerned with what this says to the world about the Unitarian Universalist faith. You know, what it says to people who are hurting, searching, and longing and turning to the church for support and guidance. I am embarrassed for Unitarian Universalists. How will anyone ever take us seriously about our messages of love and inclusion if we actively and routinely make fun of other faith traditions?

I can hear the defenses ringing in my head. Everyone is not perfect, right? We all make mistakes! Oh, can’t we just have a sense of humor? Oh, don’t be so defensive!

But for me, what this raises is the question of who the church is for. Unitarian Universalists are not alone in struggling with this, of course, so don’t think I mean this only for this context. But we certainly have an issue here. Is the church for us – the people already in the inside, who know and love each other, who believe pretty similar things and know better than those who don’t? Who know better than those people out there? Those folks that have “imaginary” best friends they call God?

Or, is the church for the world? Are we about love freely given? Unconditionally? Are we about healing those who hurt? Are we about radical hospitality? Are we about facing our own demons and pushing through that even when it is hard and soul wrenching because the world needs us? Are we about getting over ourselves?

We are not a club, people. We are a faith. If you want a liberal rational club for smart people who don’t believe silly things, a place where you giggle knowingly about those other people, please don’t hold your meetings in The Church because the The Church is for Everyone.


On Radical Hospitality at The Journey

November 20, 2009

The Journey is one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist blogs. Lots of wise and fun and interesting stuff (and some very sad, hard stuff too). For some reason, this post struck me as particularly poignant, especially as our congregation thinks about the sort of church we want to be as our minister retires:

I want the radically inclusive church. I mean, really radically inclusive.

A few years ago, the big buzz you heard at all the UU things was “Radical Hospitality.” I went home from GA or Fall Conference or wherever it was, and looked on half.com for a book about radical hospitality. Found one. Bought it.

Boy, was this NOT the book all the UU’s were talking about.

Puhleease, we talk about radical hospitality and often what we mean is “don’t ignore people when they come into your church.” That’s not radical anything.

This book I picked up was written by some missionary-type Christians. They talked about picking up homeless folks and taking them home with them. And that, my friends, is radical hospitality. Not that I’m recommending you (or I) do the same. Just don’t pat yourself on the back because you engaged someone in conversation and think that you’re radically hospitable.

I am pretty sure our church is somewhere in between “don’t ignore people when they come into your church” and “pick up people who are homeless and let them live with you.” I’m afraid though we are closer to the first than the second.

That’s the thing about church, right? You like knowing people, you like it being familiar, and safe. But when you get too much of that all of a sudden you are a club of everyone who knows each other and it is hard for new comers to break in.

One thing that stands out to me as the difference between more hospitable and less hospitable churches is if you consider your church to be more like a social club or a good place for all the liberal people in town to get together, or if you consider your church to be, you know, a religious and spiritual home where people come to nourish hearts and souls, love each other, and do the hard work of love and justice in the world as a community of faith. If it is the first (social club) it is harder be radically welcoming because hospitality is sort of hard and takes work and energy, especially if you are just fine with the friends you already have at church and all the committees are filled. If it is the second (spiritual home, community of faith), it seems like it is easier to welcome people into that because nurturing others, reaching out, and caring for people who are seeking and/or hurting, seems like it is part and parcel of growing a spiritual home and community of faith (but not so much part of a social club).

I should think this out more and write on it more clearly. But to be honest, I often blog when I am putting off pressing work, like studying for my general exams, for instance, and so I really should get to that. But I hope to return to this.


So We Probably Really Can’t Have Poor Ministers

November 6, 2009

I know lots of others have realized this and commented on it, but it just struck me anew this weekend. Two things reminded me of this. First, there is a family in our congregation where the dad is, like me, on the path to ordination.* They have three children and I can’t imagine how hard it has been for them for him to take three years off to go graduate school, and then try to find an internship and CPE that pays anything close to a living wage. I assume the irony must not be lost on many of our leaders and congregants that the UUA and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee are members of the interfaith Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, but we don’t typically pay student ministers a living wage and require them to do a unit of CPE which is a job that requires you to pay them.

The second thing that reminded me of this (aside from my ongoing realization of it in my own life), was a post on a message board where the poster was considering going to graduate school in pursuit of eventual ordination. She didn’t say her denomination, but I could tell by the details she posted that she was UU (which I know is not technically a denomination, but you get the idea). It was absolutely clear to me that she really didn’t realize what it took, or how impossible it would be for her given her situation as a single mother and the challenges with poverty that she described in her post. I didn’t have the heart to try to compose a post discouraging her.

I’m sure it has occurred to people before that one of the reasons our congregations are so un-diverse is because it is a pretty un-diverse privileged crowd of people who can afford to become our ministers. It seems to me that this would be something on the priority list to reform, but it is my sense that it is not. I wonder if it is because we have enough ministers so there is the sense that making fellowship and ordination more accessible would just flood the Association with too many ministers? Or there are just other financial/reform priorities?**

*In case you know me and wonder, “Really? She is still at that?” Yes, I am. It is the so-called “turtle track.” Slow and steady…

**It is important for me to point out that I recognize that I am implicated in this structure of injustice, as well, as a Unitarian Universalist and privileged person. I also don’t want this to be read as “Oh, bad Unitarian Universalists can’t get anything right,” which I know is a favorite past time of UUs. That said, I still thought it worth it to post my thoughts about it – both as a way to contribute to bringing the issue to our attention and, let’s face it, because blogging about things is helpful to me to “get it out” and reflect on things. Why I feel the need to write this long explanation, I don’t know. But I did.


UU Sermons, Articles and Blog Posts on Hope

June 22, 2009

I am working on a project about the understanding of hope in Unitarian Universalism. It has a more contemporary focus, but draws on older texts too. Do you know of a Unitarian Universalist sermon on hope? An article? Book? Blog post? Something else? Post it in the comments. Link to your blog. Sermon. Or something else. Self-promote!

p.s. If you know of academic literature on hope (theology, philosophy or really anything else) I would love to know about that too.


The UUA Presidential Election and The Point of Our Faith

June 3, 2009

Well, it is a rare case when I read the always thoughtful and usually (self-proclaimed) conservative UU blog of Joel Monka and agree with it. I learn a lot, but at the end of most posts I am thinking, “Wow, I so don’t agree with that.” But, his most recent post on the UUA Presidential Election has really helped to clarify a lot for me. Interestingly, his post is titled “Something Clicked,” and it helped something click for me. I shall explain.

For the few short years that I have been giving sermons (and blogging), I return to one theme over and over. You know, they say that each preacher has one sermon that he or she preaches over and over in different forms and this is SO true for me. In large part, it is because it is the struggle of my life.

The gist of my sermon that I give repeatedly in different forms is that we (and I very much include myself in this) don’t live out the values that we proclaim in our own lives. We say we believe x, y and z, but our actions don’t often enough reflect this when it gets really hard. My sermons are not so much about “do better” (although that is part of it) but more “how do we come to terms with this?” since, by my estimation, we are (I am) never going to do THAT much better at living out our values. Part of this is that we must necessarily focus our energies of love and justice at the expense of letting other injustices stand. We cannot do it all – we cannot save the world. How do we learn to live with this, and choose how and where to put our energy? (I won’t expand on this, but if you want to read my writing about this you can go here, here or here.)

Back to Joel’s post, he quotes UUA Trustee Linda Laskowski in her post about why she supports Rev. Morales for UUA President. She writes,

I believe we do offer much to a hurting world, and through working with like-minded individuals and alliances can be part of “saving” it — and in the process save ourselves and this faith we love.

Joel argues that this is backwards. He writes,

Religion isn’t about changing the world; it’s about changing the man in the mirror- if you can save him, the world will follow.

Gender exclusive language aside, I think this is what I am often getting at in my sermons and blog posts. It helps me clarify to me how I understand Unitarian Universalist faith, and also helps clarify to me an underlying current I was working against in my sermons and blog posts: that somehow the world needs what we have to offer it. Rather, I would like to reorient our reflection to how WE come up short far too much and it isn’t a matter of “fixing” ourselves and our world, but that we need to be more honest and real about coming to terms with the fact that we are not ever able to fully live up to our values.

While I tend not to be a fan of the idea of original sin, or talk of sin in general, I hear Joel’s point about how it might make sense to focus on living our lives better – dealing with/coming to terms with our weaknesses, imperfections, and brokenness (that some might call sin) – rather than always looking “out there” in the world and thinking WE can save THEM or IT. It reminds me of charismatic ministers that think they have so much to offer the world and their church that they don’t deal with their own life and end up making huge public, damaging blunders because they thought the good they do in the world/church somehow makes up for not doing such a good job in their own lives.

I often feel so frustrated at the sense that we (Unitarian Universalists) somehow have what the world needs – like, somehow Christianity or Islam or Buddhism isn’t cutting it. For me, it is that Unitarian Universalism is where I need to be. And I welcome others in joining me and my fellow Unitarian Universalists in the journey to try to do the hard work of love and justice. This is where I am, but it isn’t because other religions somehow aren’t good enough. I could digress on this, but, bringing it back to Joel’s post and the post by UUA Trustee Linda Laskowski about endorsing Peter Morales, I can see how this relates to Morales’s take on things and the tone and approach he may bring to our association. In the sermon announcing his candidacy, (click here for a pdf of the sermon) he said:

We live in a new world, a world in which once isolated religious traditions are in constant contact. We desperately need new religion for a new world. The old religions lead to tribalism, violence, suspicion, hatred, and oppression. We need a religion that transcends divisions, religion that unites enemies, religion that points to a new future that includes everyone.

While I have no doubt that he did not intend any harm by this statement, I really feel rubbed the wrong way by the idea that “we need a new religion for a new world” (which is, apparently, Unitarian Universalism) and that the “old religions” (by which he seems to mean Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) lead to tribalism, violence, suspicion, hatred, and oppression. Like somehow we’re going to get it right whereas others just don’t have what it takes. He writes

Today Judaism, Islam and Christianity, especially the more conservative parts of them, have become what they first opposed: narrow, rigid and reactionary. They look back and seek to recapture a fantasy of the past instead of embracing a vision for the future.

Aside from the fact that I am not really sure that all three of these religion “first opposed” narrowness, rigidity, and being reactionary, I feel very uncomfortable with the idea that we are what the world needs – at all – and especially over and against “old religions.”

I am not endorsing a candidate in the election. For me, this isn’t about Peter Morales, but rather about how we envision our faith: are we Unitarian Universalists because it is the context in which we can connect with the divine, become the people we want to be, serve humbly, doing the hard work of love and justice or, are we Unitarian Universalists because we think it is the best religion for our time – because it is what the world needs – what they need. Of course, for me it is the former. Unitarian Universalism is what I need. I think when it becomes the latter we fall prey to the very better-than-thou-ness of other religions who think that they have “it” and others don’t – one of the qualities that so many Unitarian Universalists do not appreciate from other faiths.

I think if we are so worried about growing and being “the religion for our time” we lose sight of the forest for the trees. We are not saving the world. We are not in a contest for the best or fastest growing faith. We fail so often to live up to our visions of our own best selves. Rather, I hope that before we go about telling other people that they need what we have, we take the time to attend to ourselves, our congregations, our hearts, our lives. I think when we do this, we will create healthy congregations and a healthy association that will draw in others who wish to join us on the path.

(Just to clarify, I am not suggesting that we somehow descend into deep navel-gazing. The point is that the outreach work of love and justice grows out of coming to terms with our own lives and grows out of community and spiritual practices that we do in our congregations. It is not the point of our congregations or faith, but some of the the fruit of it.)

Edit: I just want to be really clear here that I am not endorsing – or somehow campaigning against – a particular candidate for the UUA Presidential election. I just don’t know enough about each of them to feel like I can make a good decision – I have been too caught up in pregnancy, birth and raising our new sweet baby to give this election the attention it deserves. There are a lot of issues at hand – many angles to consider – and this is just one of them. For all I know, I have totally misread Morales’s overall thrust and vision – this is just a little sliver of a big and complex picture. If you are going to be voting or endorsing, I encourage you to do  more reading at many different sources and talk to others you trust about this. Peace, E