Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

October 2, 2011: “Is There a Future For Us?, Association Sunday”

A friend of mine tells the story of making his first trip south of the Mason-Dixon Line from Chicago to Georgia. On his first morning in the South he went into a restaurant to order breakfast, and it seemed that every dish included something called grits…which, as my Texas friends tell me, is exactly the way God intended it. Not being familiar with this southern delicacy, he asked the waitress, “Could you tell me, exactly what is a grit?” Looking down on him with a mixture of compassion and condescension, she said, “Sugar, you can’t get just one grit. They always come together.”

I had titled this sermon before I had given my resignation; it was meant to tie in to Association Sunday when we emphasize our interdependence and connection with the larger movement, the larger faith, the denomination and even the district, The Ohio Meadville District, commonly, OMD. After giving my resignation, it might have a different meaning, but I’d like to explore those possibilities. My sermons will now deal with pastoral care issues like grief, anger, frustration, and the transition of change, which will be thrust upon us when I leave. I, too, will be changed, because part of my identity right now is being the minister of East Shore UU Church in Kirtland, OH. But your identity will also change, though quite differently, of course. Part of the process each church goes through when the minister leaves is to try to figure out who they really are, and what they really want out of a minister.

But, brothers and sisters, we must also remember that we are not each of us a “grit,” we are part of a larger group, part of a beloved community, now in need of healing and understanding. So I want to give us some prospective though which we might view the potential of the future of both UUism and of this particular church. I have not felt a close relationship in this church to the wider denomination or district unless we need help. We have not been able to pay our dues-both literally and figuratively; that is, we have not been able literally to pay the dues required to support both the UUA and the District. But perhaps I might put that a different way; perhaps we have chosen not to pay them, giving more importance to other things within our tight budget. One of the issues this church must wrestle with is what we truly say we believe by the allocation of our money, from what we pledge to the church, to what we decide to allocate things from the budget. All budgets, of course, are estimates, educated guesses if you will, but our own viewpoints come onto play as well. It’s rarely the money, folks, it’s usually our opinion, our commitment, our way of handling money. What is the future of the way this church handles money? Can this church afford a future?

I have talked and preached about growth and change; indeed, I am told it was the reason I was called here. I have observed a resistance to growth here, especially when it involves changing the way things always have been done, or more importantly, the way w like it. We’re not alone; many of our churches struggle with growth and hence, the future. I used to have people chant this mantra with me- “Remember the Shakers! Remember the Shakers!” They were once one of the largest religious groups in this country, yet died out because they did not plan for growth, and being celibate, couldn’t even reproduce children for the future! One of our Cleveland churches, the oldest in fact is located in “Shaker Heights,” yet how many people know where it got its name?

Back in April of 2011, there was a conference that sponsored a tradition in the UUA, The Minns Lectures, endowed to the memory of Susan Minns in 1941 to honor her brother, Thomas Minns; they were descendants of John Wilson, the first minister of First Church, Boston, gathered in 1630. Indeed that’s also where the lectures are held for a weekend. This year the theme was “Composing Our UU Future: Where Are We Now, What’s Possible, What’s Next?”

Susan Minns, who died in 1938 at the age of 98, left an unusual legacy in her brother Thomas’s honor, to be jointly administered by King’s Chapel and First Church. He was an active member of First Church, and King’s Chapel, which became the 1st Unitarian church in the country, First church, one of literally the first Puritan churches in Boston, would become Unitarian in the 19th century. Gathered in 1630 became their legacy is known as the Minns Lecture series, lectures by Unitarian Universalist ministers on “religious topics of historical importance and contemporary relevance.” She was quite a character, living with her brother at 14 Louisburg Square, right behind 25 Beacon St in a very exclusive neighborhood, and neither married. She was the oldest living female graduate of M. I. T. and had been one of the very first women to study there. There is a wonderful story told about her love of books, and the Boston Athenaeum, a Library started in 1807 by some Unitarians. From a talk George T. Goodspeed in 1982 delivered to the Bostonian Society: “Miss Minns once brought her dog to 10 Beacon Street, the home of the Athenaeum, and was politely but firmly reminded that dogs were not permitted in the library. Indignant, she immediately left, went down the hill to her broker’s office, bought a share in the Athenaeum registered in the dog’s name, returned to the library, slapped the share on the front desk, and said “NOW keep him out!” And dogs are still permitted at the Athenaeum!”

Our own district Minister, Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie was the lecturer in 2009. This lecture series was given by various ministers who have all been involved in successful growth in their churches. Rev. Larry Peers who worked in growth for the UUA before he went to Alban Institute, the main Protestant think tank and publisher of books on church dynamics, growth, etc.

He starts by reminding us of the facts- 1046 congregations affiliated with the UUA, “about 162,000 adults and 54,000 children and youth within our congregations. Sometimes we pride ourselves on how small but mighty we are and how much relative impact we seem to have.

Let’s face it whatever real and significant impact we make as congregations and as individuals is influenced by our relative small size as a religious organization even though, I know, I know- –we cast long shadows!

We might boost our confidence for just a moment when we recall that independent polls such as that conducted by the Religious Identification Survey 2001 found that 629,000 U.S. adults when asked an open-ended question about their own religious identity think of themselves as Unitarian Universalists.

Enjoy that moment that we might say to ourselves “Wow there are a lot of Unitarian Universalists!” Then, let’s come back to planet Earth and also say, “Wow, only a very small portion of those who consider themselves Unitarian Universalists actually join a UU congregation.” With curiosity and not with judgment we might ask ourselves, “What’s that about?”

Before any of you are struck by an overwhelming fervor of evangelism let me tell you that the average approximate seating capacity in our Unitarian Universalist congregation where the largest worship service is held is 188 seats. Unitarian Universalists in our congregations are most likely to be of European descent, college educated, and over age 60. So, even if the 629,000 adults who identify as Unitarian Universalists wanted to not all would find a congregation to go to, or a seat in one of our congregations, or people whose life stage or experiences connect with their own…

We must stop, he cautions, as my good friend Victoria Weinstein says, being enamored by our “terminal uniqueness.”

He concludes, referring to this year being the 50th Anniversary of the merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists, “I believe that as we stand at this holy threshold of this 50-year mark, we are called to fashion a faith that cannot just be sustainable as an organization, but must also sustain the human soul as a faith in the promising and in the uncertain times ahead.”

Our membership chair extraordinaire, Sharon Waite, who has been working diligently for growth, and I were talking about the orientation and two pages that I had included in our packet that she was wondering about. They were from the congregational survey from 2006, before I came here to be your minister, and contained the usual agenda, I call it, “what do we believe and why do we come here?”

One of the other Minns lecturers was Rev. Christine Robinson, minister of the large Albuquerque church which has actually spun off some off-site churches. She said the 20th century mantra was “UU’s are free to believe whatever we want to and most of us don’t.” If we want to survive, even thrive, in the 21st century, we need to change that to “UUs worship and grow in spirit in religiously diverse congregations.”

When Sharon and I looked at the list of possible beliefs, the spiritual smorgasbord, if you will, and the fact, (and this still amazes me for our oh so logical UU folk), that you can choose two or three beliefs, even if they seem to be mutually excluding! I will argue that most of us not only don’t know how to theologically pigeonhole ourselves, we don’t care about theology! We don’t come to church because we’re nature centered, theist, Buddhists; we come because we are called to come, called by the spirit of life, God, the Holy, The good, names fail us here and rightly so, because names are not important, nor is theology, if it is used to divide rather than multiply!

Even the reasons that we choose out of limited responses, tend to be the old faithful, if you’ll pardon that pun, intellectual stimulation! What we are after is stimulation all right, but we want our whole selves to be stimulated, our deepest needs to be shared with others we can love and trust; we come to be challenged to be better humans and to help the world be a better place for us having lived in it. And we come for many more reasons, many of which are personal to us.

I’ll have to admit, that I wanted to argue that we should keep those pages in so newcomers could see all the different faith-stances until I realized that probably most people would answer differently if asked today, and further, that those surveys didn’t give me a true idea of the predominant beliefs of the congregation, because you didn’t know how to adequately express your beliefs, because the beliefs were not the reason you came to this beloved community, nor why so many of you give time, love, and money, because you deeply care about the community that is created when you are here! And your heart suffers when you are not!

Marylyn Sewell Minister Emeritus at the Portland Oregon church of over a thousand members and taking up an entire city block, another of the Minns Lecturers told story and perhaps it will resonate with you:

“Unitarian Universalism saved my life, so I owe quite a personal debt to our faith. Like so many of us who discover this religion, I was in crisis. It was the 70s when women were finding themselves and losing their husbands. I was one of them. I was in Lexington, KY, recently separated from my husband, and I was surprised to find that the Baptist church, where we had been attending, no longer wanted my services as a teacher for their young people? I was a sinner, you see. So there I was in my therapist’s office, in tears, bemoaning the fact that I had lost not only my husband, but also my whole social structure. What was I to do? She answered, “Why don’t you go over to the Unitarian Universalist church? There are a lot of divorced people over there.” And so I dared to venture out, frightened and insecure. I didn’t go to the Sunday service, but to Friday night volley ball. It was a popular event, and I sat there on the sidelines through several games, while others rushed in to take their places, not noticing me. Then someone “a Black man” looked down at me and said, “Don’t you want to play?” “Yes,” I said, and he reached down and pulled me up into the game. His name was Titus, and he was from Africa, doing graduate work at the University of Kentucky. I had never been in a church where there were Black people. And so this Southern woman, who grew up in a small town in Louisiana in the 40s and 50s, was pulled into new life by a Black man. It was a moment I have never forgotten.”

I know we have saved lives, brothers and sisters, all our churches have, but how many more lives do you think we could save if we actually reached out to the community who needs us, who look for us and don’t know how to find us since we keep ourselves a secret. Remember the Shakers!

Association Sunday is a special Sunday to remind us that we are not alone as a church unless we choose to be. There are all sorts of district events, webinars, conferences, consultants, as well as Denominational resources, especially the summer camps as well as one of my favorite spiritual events, the annual General Assembly of congregations where one can experience what it might be like to belong to a megachurch that feeds our souls and uses language that we speak and provides music from a wide variety of sources and instruments that gets us moving and yes, even feeling good!

“I have come to believe,” says Marylyn Sewell, “that our core problem, and the problem that must be addressed before other issues will be resolved, is this: we are a religious movement that no longer takes religion seriously.

Unitarian Universalists are likely to be characterized by strong egos battling against one another and against any form of authority, rather than by a people who know they need to be blessed. We are proud and elitist, rather than humble; we believe ourselves to be self-sufficient, smarter than the average bear, rather than in need of grace; we tend to be satirical rather than ironic, readily making fun of others, whom we consider inferior; many of our churches and fellowships believe that we have “outgrown” the superstition of our Christian forebears and are on to better things, like eco-roofs or communion services done with donuts or M&Ms.”

Why DO we come here to this church in a small conservative town, the heart of Mormon territory, and often drive anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to get here! What DO we believe? How shall we live out our belief? What do we want from a minister? A church? Each other? God?

As we travel our last months together, let us put them to good use by coming together to heal the hurt that has happened and is inevitable whenever a minister leaves. How shall we love one another when we are angry with one another? Can we turn that anger to constructive discussion about the challenge of change, the calling of the holy which always universally urges us out of our egos, out of the antithesis of religion which is rabid individualism, selfish behavior.

Indeed, I often quote Marylyn Sewell’s definition of sin- Self-Inflicted-Nonsense. I believe that one of the worst sins is selfishness, that lack of compassion for the other, even as all religions call us to feed the hungry, house the homeless. I will argue that it was and is the sin of selfishness that has caused this country to have the highest rate of poverty and the widest gap between the rich and the poor, and even the economic melt down, the Great Disruption, as it is now being called is simply selfishness- trying to get all you can for yourself while others starve.

The final words of Earl Morse Wilbur’s two-volume History of Unitarianism, still required reading for all UU seminarians, and still dry as dust, are inspiring as well as historical, and can still inform us: “Freedom, reason and tolerance . . . are not the final goals to be aimed at in religion, but only conditions under which the true ends may best be attained. The ultimate ends proper to a religious movement are two: personal and social; the elevation of personal character, and the perfecting of the social organism, and the success of a religious body may be judged by the degree to which it attains these ends. Only if the Unitarian movement, true to its principles of freedom, reason, and tolerance, goes on through them and finds its fulfillment in helping men [people] to live worthily as children of God, and to make their institutions worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven, will its mission be accomplished.”

Let us move on from this time of transition as opportunity for learning how to love one another truly, deeply, and how we might bring together different and often conflicting political beliefs for common purpose. Let us learn that language of reverence and be of open mind and heart with helping hands, and voices raised in stirring song. Let us dare to be transformed so that we might transform the world, which needs us, small band of faithful seekers that we are. May even the grief we feel be transformed into resolve for self reflection as well as congregation reflection. Before we worry about growth, let us begin by loving the best we can and helping one another and the world.

–Ibn Arabi, 12th century Spanish prophet who influenced Rumi wrote:

There is so much room in my heart!
Room for
A meadow for gazelles,
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
The tables of the Torah,
The scrolls of the Quran.

My creed is love;
Wherever its caravan turns along the way,
That is my belief,
My faith.

My religion is to follow
The Caravan of Love wherever it leads.
You say we will get lost
I say that if we each speak our name for God
And we each listen closely
We shall have all we need.

May peace with us,
May Love guide us…