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.

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Some UU Thoughts

April 29, 2006

It is times like this that I wish I would have made this blog anonymous-ish, like some other UU bloggers out there, which would give me (at least a bit more) free reign to just rant. (I know it is hard to believe that I might be able to do such a thing…) So no ranting here. I will try to be calm, collected, and reasonable. I went to the Ballou Channing District conference today. It was a good reminder that I need to get out and about in UU land more. It was also a good experience to help me understand why so many other bloggers can be so critical of UUism. (For instance, you can find a collection of critiques of the UUA and UUism ideas about “fixing” UUism here at Chalice Chick‘s blog or you can read one of many posts that are pretty down on the UUA and/or UUism in general here at Boy in the Bands blog. I could go on, but there is an abundance of not very satisfied UUs out there who offer lots of criticism, generally, I think out of love, but still it can be a bit much sometime.)

Anyway, I guess throw me in the mix of loving critiquers. I think a lot of my previous feeling of wondering how oh how could anyone be harsh about UUism/UUA etc. comes from being a part of two really great congregations — my home church and my internship church. There has been very little if any bickering at these places, great leadership, and lots of respect and flexibility about and around people’s various beliefs. Like my early time being involved in a Christian church in high school, I freely admit I tend to come at a lot of religion stuff a tad naively. That said, it is good to learn the hard lessons of religious community — it is, of course, messy and really should be no other way because life is messy. Anyway. Onward.

I’ll start with the thing that could, in and of itself, be enough to complain/lament about in and of itself. Our every-so-loveable keynote speaker Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr (bio here) called people who believed in the resurrection of Jesus “idiots.” This is not an exaggeration on my part. He was making fun of how, in his opinion, Western religions think that their myths are literally true, while Eastern religions know that their myths are not really true and just a way of understanding the world. (I would question this blanket statement. And, as a side note, he also said that there are no gods in Buddhism, which is wrong. You can read a little about that here at wikipedia or here at www.religionfacts.com). And in this context about myths, he said something along the lines like “A dead guy actually rising again after death? Come on! Give me a break!” and then the bit about idiots. I don’t know if it might have occurred to him that perhaps there are UUs who believe this (like Peacebang who wrote about just that recently in this post) and he actually doesn’t care about calling fellow ministers and fellow UUs idiots or if he simply didn’t stop to think about this. I don’t happen to believe in the bodily actual resurrection of Jesus, but certainly I don’t think those who do are idiots. I must say, by the end of the Rev. Dr. Loehr’s talk I was really too offended to listen to much of what he was saying. But he seemed to argue, as well, that we shouldn’t believe in God in the traditional sense anymore, or, rather, that we shouldn’t call what is not actually God-in-the-traditional sense God because that is being untruthful or inconsistent. Really what we should say is that this ground of being (a la Tillich, or whatever language you might use to talk about the divine or holy) is not God. He seemed to understand that God must equal “a big guy in the sky.” I’m sure I’m not saying this well and that maybe the way I’m saying it doesn’t help my reader understand how annoying this was. Maybe someone will produce a transcript of this and I can then quote more accurately. The point is that I find making fun of other people’s beliefs, say, like the belief in bodily resurrection or the actual belief in God, not so helpful. And, if he is all concerned about rescuing UUism and growing the faith (as it seems he is concerned with) then I would say that calling people who believe in Jesus’ resurrection idiots and making fun of people who believe in God-in-the-traditional-sense or who just like to say God because it makes sense to them, is not a step in the right direction since in 2004 about 80% of our country self-identified as Christian. Anyway.

Onto a second, and slightly less problematic part of his talk, but still, on top of the other stuff not pleasing to yours truly. He told the story about how Friedrich Schleiermacher (an old theologian guy whom you can read about here) gave the sermon at his nine year old son’s funeral and instead of saying that Nathaniel was “playing soccer in heaven with Jesus” (these are the exact words from Dr. Loehr’s talk, of course FS would never had said such a thing anyway) instead FS said that it was really sad his son hadn’t lived a full life. Rev. Dr. Loehr’s point here was that Schleiermacher was being honest about what he believed — that his son wasn’t in heaven and rather than comforting everyone at the funeral with sweet lies (ie heaven) he instead had integrity and was honest. Hmm.

First, one of my favorite images happens to be imagining my Pappaw and Mammaw, Grandaddy, my cousin Bob, my and cats Puffy, Helaina, Tyler, Nicole, Twinkle Eyes, Linda, Harriet, Tiffany and Luke frolicking around up in heaven. I know of course that my vision of what this might look like is probably quite a ways off from what it actually looks like, but my theory is that no one knows what the afterlife looks like, so all we can do is give our best guess at imagining it. If it works for you to imagine reincarnation, fine. Soccer up in heaven, great. If you like to imagine your cats becoming friends with Jesus and the Buddha, that is just fine, too. It is not a matter of being dishonest but rather saying we just don’t know and so we might as well think about what works best for us. And this is what I think about most religious things, including the idea of God and heaven. We just don’t really know and I get really really annoyed with people (ah-hem) who think that they are super-enlightened and like to make fun of people who believe CRAZY stuff like that their cats are chasing mice in heaven and hanging out with all their departed family members. Instead these oh-so-enlightened people tell us how it really is because of course they really know that there is no such thing as heaven. Did I say I wasn’t going to get sarcastic? Sorry, I know I shouldn’t and I will stop.

Secondly, when a child dies, I am all for saying what the family needs to hear. Funerals are not a time to profess your own personal theological revelatory truths (such as there is no heaven). If you are doing a Buddhist funeral, you do what the Buddhists need and talk about interbeing and the eightfold path. If it is a humanist funeral, you focus on the person’s life more than what might (or might not) come after it. If you are doing a funeral for your daughter’s cat, you ask what the daughter thinks happen to the cat. If it happens that she thinks the cat is chasing mice in heaven, then you go with that. No one knows what happens when you die. We all come up with different ways of making sense of this. Rev. Loehr said it would have been easier for FS to say that his son was in heaven because that is what people wanted to hear, including the boy’s mom. But this was the time that FS chose to profess his theological honesty? How about when someone commits suicide? Do you talk about how sad his last moments were because that is the honest thing to do? Or when my Mammaw died should I have taken that moment to share with my Southern Baptist family my thoughts on Southern Baptist Theology or Christian theology?

“I know Mammaw believed that she would go to heaven with Pappaw and Jesus, and all of you believe that too, but actually, I go to Harvard Divinity School and have a slightly different take on what her afterlife looks like, and I thought now, in order to be truly honest and have integrity, I would share that with you.”

Anyway. I think I have made my point.

What I mean to say is that I didn’t think that our speaker today was all that helpful because even if he had some valid challenges to make to Unitarian Universalism (like, for instance, that we victimize groups of people so we can feel like the super-hero-rescuers) it was hard to hear that with all of his unnecessary making-fun-of and what struck me as a tad of hubris and oh-look-at-me, I’m going against the grain and challenging you all who are stuck in your old silly liberal ways. By the way, he referred to people who think that God is up in the sky as thinking of God as a critter. I’ve never heard this before. Not only does it sound demeaning to people who think of God in a more traditional sense, it just sounds strange to me. I theorized to a fellow conference go-er that perhaps it was a Texas thing (Loehr is from TX).
As an interlude, I will share, as the evaluation form for the conference asked, “What worked best for you at the conference today?” I loved seeing other UUs from other congregations, talking with some AWESOME young adult women (they were so good I practically wanted to hug them), and learning about UU history in a workshop. It was great to be gathered in the presence of so many beautiful people who I am journeying with and will continue to journey along with. And I’m not just saying that. That was really nice.

Now, back to my loving critiques. There was an award ceremony in the middle of the opening service. There were quite a few awards, and I’m guessing that, like me, most people didn’t know the people who were getting the awards. This could be understood as nit-picky. It comes from my many years running leadership conferences for high school and college students. This would have been something we would have taught them if they were going to have a religious service – put the names of those who are getting the awards in the program. If you must include a verbal announcement, as a way of recognizing those who contribute to the work of our faith in the world, do so in a two minute (not 15 minute) acknowledgement. Second, after the Rev. Dr.’s over-hour-long talk, and after we broke up into small groups for a half-hour (and someone in my small group dominated the entire conversation) instead of going to lunch as would have made sense, they decided to have MORE loooong announcements. Right before lunch. And they were not essential announcements, but 101 reasons why we think you should go to GA. And other stuff that I don’t remember because I was hungry like everyone else and had been sitting since . I really will say that I KNOW this is being nit-picky in a sense. But, I just want to see my beautiful wonderful denomination be run as beautifully as my ultra-professional mega-church of my youth. There is a reason people flocked to my mega-church that I went to in high school. Because they didn’t let a long string of people get up and make long, repetative announcements right before lunch. They were investing in having people come to our church because they thought that their souls needed to be saved. This was a really compelling reason to get their act together really really well and be really professional. I know that we don’t have this feeling of being in a rush to rescue souls from hell and sometimes I feel like this results in not putting our all into things or just not feeling like doing things really well is as urgent. It is sort of like “Whatever we do is good enough because we all have dignity and worth and we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by suggesting maybe a different approach…” And then we have people like Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr who are really concerned about the future of Unitarian Universalism and changing thing, and his way of doing that is by refusing to call himself UU, calling The Seven Principles The Seven Banalities, insulting people’s theologies, going on about Schleiermacher and Feuerbach, and touting Paul Tillich as the best theologian of the 20th century (I happen to not be a fan of old Paul). Sigh.
But I do have hope. And not just because I am truly impressed with the future of UU ministry (that is, recent and soon to be graduates of div. school) but because I believe that there is something compelling about UUism. And that we can learn. We can change. We can take the wonderful things we have, unlearn those not-so-great things, and learn new things. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a Unitarian Universalist who is or was involved in the work of the faith who wasn’t well intentioned. Not that that is everything, but it is a great foundation. I’m truly thrilled to have found this faith and the wonderful current and future ministers, the excited commited people in congregations… And look forward to learning more and doing all that I can to support the work and growth of our faith in the world.