Centering Thought: “In case you forget, pain is there to help with your decisions.” – Hafiz
Sermon “Dining with Daniel,” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
Have you ever gotten news that seems devastating? The kind of news that you were afraid would change your life for the worse? Only to have it turn out to be not so bad afterall?
That happened to me a while ago. Six years ago.
As part of my preparations for being ordained, I was sent to a camp in the back woods of West Virginia to learn about family systems in congregations. Everyone there was a minister, and most of them served Baptist churches in the south, where they were expected to be perfect…pillars of the community, exemplars of self-discipline and good judgment.
One of the attendees, 28 year-old mother, told the story of being home without her husband one night, putting her kids to bed, getting into her cuddliest pajamas, pouring herself a glass of wine as she settled onto the couch, only to be terrified by the doorbell.
Oh, she didn’t think it was a monster, or a solicitor, she knew it was much worse. It was a congregant. Somebody who could NOT, under any circumstances, see her drink.
She did want any person of self-discipline and good judgment would do: she put the glass of wine in the bathtub and closed the curtain before answering the door. As soon as she turned the doorknob to let in Old Mrs. Crandall, she thought “what if she needs to use the bathroom? She’ll look behind that curtain. I’ll be sunk. My reputation will be ruined?”
All the Baptist ministers had stories like this, which they told as they cracked open one beer after another. They were crocked the whole weekend. We ate cheeseburgers and turkey sandwiches and talked about family dynamics while they knocked back beer after beer. Except in the evening when they drank…bourbon.
The last morning, I woke up and my left foot was killing me, like somebody was sticking a hot iron poker through my heel. The weight of the sheet made it feel like a truck was parked on it. As I hobbled to breakfast, I wondered what I could have done to break it the day before.
I had a long, long trip home to San Francisco, arriving late at night. I hobbled off the plane at the last gate in the terminal, and made my way to the people mover. It was broken. When I finally reached the exit doors an airport employee said to me, “you could have requested a wheelchair, you know.”
Thank goodness my doctor could see me the next day. He took a couple x-rays and told me it was sprained. Badly sprained. He told me to put some ice on it, keep it elevated, get some crutches, and use them for a few days. A week later, I was better.
In those days, I ran about 25 miles a week, so I had to take it easy for a while. A couple weeks later, feeling better, I put on shorts and my best New Balance running shoes and headed out the door. I couldn’t go very far, but I felt great, and was looking forward to getting away from eating poorly. I had a turkey sandwich and water for lunch. A light dinner.
In the morning, I woke up in agony again. The pain was back! The doctor told me I had probably not given it enough time, and that the running had made things worse.
I gave myself a month to heal. The pain returned. Then I gave myself three months. Again, the pain returned. Six months. Pain, pain and more pain.
I just gave up, but even without running, every once in a while I’d wake up to that same horrible pain, I’d use the crutches – which turned out to be a great investment – until the pain subsided.
At General Assembly in Portland a few weeks ago, I woke to the incredible news that Marriage Equality, thanks to the Supreme Court, was the law of the land. I was ecstatic, even though the bed sheet felt like a truck parked on my foot.
I took a ton of Aleve, and got some crutches from the nice folks at the GA accessibility services desk, but by 8:30 that night I was in the emergency room with the worst pain I have ever experienced in my life, and where I got a diagnosis.
I felt stupid. Both my mother and my younger brother have gout, a build up of uric acid that crystalizes in joints, usually in the feet. They’ve both had it for years, and it never occurred to me that running wasn’t hurting me, it was the weekly hamburgers and occasional beer I was having since I’d stopped!
The painful crystals I’ve learned are caused by foods rich in purines, things like beef, turkey, shellfish, alcohol, high fructose corn syrup, and even peanuts, and asparagus. I’ve made an appointment with a new primary care physician, my first in Ohio, and as a new patient, I can’t see him until September 24! In the interim, I’ve just cut out all those tasty things and returned to a mostly vegan diet.
I feel great! And no pain.
But the thought of never getting to have any of those foods again was a sad at first. Maybe more than sad. I have to admit I was a little angry, maybe even feeling a little self pity. And it was a hassle at Summer Institute at Oberlin College, where I was on staff a couple weeks after I got back from Portland. We were living in dorm rooms and eating in the student cafeteria, which is, you know, meant for students. Every day they serve lots of pepperoni pizza, cheeseburgers, P B and J, cold cuts…none of which I can eat. I ate salad bar. And soft serve. I like to have died without the softserve.
It was hot at Oberlin. I was sluggish from the extra weight and the lack of calories. And everyday I went to the theme talks about … what else … the future of Unitarian Universalism.
It was full of dire predictions about the future of not just our faith but all liberal religion in the United States, full of statistics from the Pew Research Center’s surveys on Religion and Public Life, results of which have been trickling in – and getting more dire – since just about the time I was camped out with drunken Baptist ministers in West Virginia.
Here’s what I took away:
A record 26% of all Americans report to have no affiliation with any church whatsoever. They’re the folks that, when asked to check a box for their faith, check “none.” They are affectionately referred to as “Nones,” and they don’t need or want us. That number is up from 2007, when they were only 16% of Americans. (1)
35% of Millenials identify as “Nones.” Nearly all of them consider themselves spiritual, but many are unwilling to darken the doorways of churches they see as being full of hypocrites who care more about institutions and power than they do about authentic experiences of connecting with something larger than themselves.
According to the Pew Center and sociologists like David Putnam who study religion and voluntary organizations, Millennials aren’t going to hang around in churches that don’t make an effort to draw them in.
For four days, I listened to these statistics, dreaming of a turkey sandwich and a cold frosty India Pale Ale. I felt fat, depressed, and deprived.
Then, on the fifth day, the payoff. Congregations of all faiths, all across the United States, are doing amazing things like partnering with local art galleries and coffee houses to produce high-tech, incredibly creative, interactive spiritual experiences. They’re opening up storefronts off site, creating everything from coffee bars to drop-in maker spaces where you can use every tool imaginable to make custom jewelry or steam-punk style tiny houses. They’re opening gyms where muscleheads can pump iron with Jesus and children can climb indoor rock walls after school.
Congregations of all denominations are buying up derelict buildings near them and converting them into housing for the poor. They’re partnering with the management companies of privately owned co-housing developments to provide garden plots to apartment dwellers.
And they’re growing.
Saddleback Church, based in Lake Forest California, is one of the largest churches in the United States. With 11 locations and 24,000 members (2) they offer the kinds of programs that are supposed to be drawing in Millenials. It was founded in 1980, built from the ground up by their charismatic pastor, Rick Warren, a man who was a chaplain to George W. Bush AND did the invocation at the first inauguration of Barack Obama.
I want to share with you a story from Rick Warren. [move away from the pulpit]
Wow! Everybody’s fat.
That shocking thought kept reverberating in my mind one bright spring day as I was baptizing 827 adults.
I’ll admit it wasn’t a very spiritual thought for a pastor to have, especially while baptizing! But I was getting tired, since our church baptizes the way Jesus did in the Jordan River – by lowering people under the water, then lifting them back up.
That day, based on the average weight of Americans, I lifted more than 145,000 pounds!
I had read plenty of articles about the growing epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in America, but that day I actually felt the weight of America’s health problem in a dramatic way.
While my first thought was that everyone I baptized was overweight, my second thought was more personal and pointed: But I’m fat, too! I’m as out of shape as everyone else is!
In that moment of clarity, I realized the terrible example I was giving with my own health. How could I expect my congregation to take better care of their bodies if I was such a poor model? I had ignored my own growing problem for thirty years.” (3)
Rick Warren, like so many of us, gained weight slowly, at the rate of about three pounds a year. He made an impassioned plea one Sunday. He repented for being a poor steward of his health, and asked for his congregation to forgive him, and to join him in an effort to become healthier by changing the essentials in their lives: faith, food, fitness, focus and friends.
Then, he did what any good pastor of a super-rich mega church would do: He called in three nationally known TV doctors and came up with a 40-day regimen. Two of them co-wrote a book with Warren called The Daniel Plan, based on the Hebrew Book of Daniel in which the protagonist, as Warren Describes it, “refused to eat junk food and challenged a king to a health contest.” (4)
I sat there, in Oberlin thinking how Rick Warren with his huge church can do anything he wants. When he had to lose weight, 12,000 congregants joined him, and they lost 250,000 pounds. His book was on the bestseller list and earned him a Christian Book Award!
But what can a bunch of Unitarian Universalists do in our little congregations? And more to the point, what can we do in little old Kirtland, way out in the hinterlands? I can’t get Nutritionists to write a gout diet book. Feh. I can’t even figure out how to come up with more than a few meals my fiance and I can share. He’s diabetic, and has to pretty much live on all the stuff I can’t eat. We’re like Jack Spratt and his wife.
But at Summer Intitute, I asked in a forum, “aren’t Millennials the people who are raising chickens in their backyards, brewing beer at home, repurposing old typewriters and running around town on their low-tech ‘fixy’ bicycles? They’re making rag rugs and canning the veggies they grow in their front yards.” And most Millennials I know have rule: when they go out together for dinner or a drink, the smart phones get piled in the middle of the table. Some go so far as to say that the first person to look at their phone pays the bill for everyone.
Maybe what Millennials really want is to slow things down. Maybe they want to come to church and not be wowed by the latest technology, but to slow down, unplug their electronics for a couple hours, and really connect with people who are willing to see them and hear them and just be with them.
Maybe Millennials don’t want a faster church, but a slower one, so instead of doing high tech, trendy church, we should be doing slow, old-fashioned church. For the generation that invented slow food and slow living maybe we should be doing slow church.
Maybe, just maybe, what we have to offer here in Kirtland is exactly what Millennials – and a whole lot of other people – are looking for. Light-filled space. Outdoor space in a quiet, rural setting. A chance to slow down with decent, honest, authentic people, creative and artistic people in an historic environment. We even have a movable dance floor that wants to be polished with our feet moving on it at night. Instead of getting depressed about the pain of what we don’t have, we can be grateful for the incredible gifts we do have.
I think we have a lot more than the experts would have us believe. We just need to see the characteristics we have as being the gifts they are.
We have a big year ahead of us. This is the year that the Board of Trustees and the Committee on Ministry and I – based on a lot of feedback we’ve gotten from all of you – have designated to begin to articulate our mission and vision. We have to start that by doing an honest assessment of what we have.
As I start to look at a new gastronomic life for myself, I can look at it as a whole slew of limitations. Or.
I can see it as an opportunity for a new start, a chance to slow down and get back to the way things used to be. I can run again. And I can have a whole lot of foods I love. Pasta and crusty artisanal breads. Beans, tofu and seitan. Nuts and fresh fruit. And all but a very few vegetables. And it’s given Joe and me a reason to experiment with new recipes.
So far, I’ve lost ten pounds. And I’m sleeping better than I have in years.
I’m sorry, but I’m not going to listen too much to the experts. I’m going with my guts here, and I hope you’ll join me. I’m not suggesting we lose a quarter million pounds together, just that we dine with Daniel and do what he did: challenge the giant of collective wisdom and do what feels right, relying on faith and friends to focus on the fitness of our congregation, well into the future, and expand our welcome table to the best, most inclusive one we can handle, even if it isn’t the biggest.
May it be so.
(1) Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones/
(2) Outreach magazine. “America’s Fastest-Growing and Largest Outreach 100 Churches, 2014” https://www.outreachmagazine.com/2014-outreach-100/outreach-100-largest-churches-america.html
(3) Rick Warren, Daniel Amen, mark Hyman. The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life. Zondervan. Grand Rapids, MI. 2013. P. 13.
(4) Warren, et. al. p. 15.