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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A New Paradigm



Recently I listened to an interview on my favorite public radio show, On Being.  Krista Tippett interviewed Christian Wiman, a poet, essayist, and editor of Poetry Magazine. Wiman grew up in West Texas in a Southern Baptist family. Like many young people, he left the church and religion when he left home, but several years later he returned to religion, to God. I was so engaged by the program, I listened to the unedited ninety-minute interview, then watched his interview with Bill Moyers. What captivated me most was this exchange with Krista Tippett who asks:

[If] you think about yourself in church all those years ago in west Texas, the church you grew up in, which was just given to you like the air you breathed and then when you're in church now, what's going on that's different? How is that experience different?
Mr Wiman: Well, it's utterly different. I think it's a weaker experience now. I mean, I'm just too conscious. I wish I were able to let myself go in ways that those people did in my childhood and still do. When I go to my mother's church now, it's one of those big mega-churches. You know, I don't agree with their theology and I don't like a lot of the ways that they commercialize their services, but it is an incredibly diverse church and the people are intensely involved. They're treating it as if their whole life were at stake. The churches I go to, liberal Protestant churches, it seems pretty casual. I wish there were some credible middle ground. I wish there was some way of harnessing that — the intensity that I felt in my childhood in more sophisticated ways.

You know how I talk about my inner-tent-revivalist? Well this is the tent I’ve been talking about and it’s going up now. Somebody left that barn door open and my inner-revivalist is coming out. Seriously, there is a deep and vast hunger to marry the intensity of a tent revival with a sophisticated understanding of spirit, and we, brothers and sisters, can officiate. But first we must recognize the power of treating church as if our whole life were at stake.

Now it’s easy to dismiss this part; we don’t labor under the threat of eternal damnation. But we live in a state of perpetual disconnection that causes this hunger. Our daily lives are filled with a thousand choices that either connect or disconnect us from the ground of our being—choices that don’t even feel like choices anymore. None of us wants to purchase products made by exploited workers but we figure what’s our choice? So we buy the smart phone or the cheap underwear, or anything else we can find at the big-box store, the discount chain or online, and it tears a little each time we do because even if we rationalize with our minds, the heart center, that core part of our being where knowing, not just thinking, resides, sighs. We know even if we ignore it that there’s no clean way to extract oil or natural gas. Fossil fuels are dirty even if the ads for them are sanitized. Literally everywhere we turn, we feel trapped by what feels like an inevitable, inescapable path paved with the bricks of individualism, competition, and fear. Our political discourse bounces between ridiculous and rancorous; we let the free market—not our core values—decide and then shrug our shoulders with a combination of resignation and powerlessness. We don’t know what to tell or teach our children about yet another fatal shooting in school; and we don’t know what to say to those same children for whom bullying is a fact of life and video war games are staple entertainment.

Daily we spiral deeper into disconnect and the evidence is ubiquitous. Addiction, asthma, autism, depression, PTSD, chronic fatigue, poverty, income disparity—all on the rise. We all experience the disconnect whether or not we name it, see it, or believe it. Our bodies, the heart-center in each of us knows it. Our lives are at stake.

And yet we see an Easter headline like this one from the Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise: “Worshippers Waning: Local ministers say fewer of the faithful attend Easter Services.” And why are people not coming to church the way they did in the past? Because the old paradigm isn’t working.

Last month I read Thomas Bandy’s book, Kicking Habits: Welcome Relief for Addicted Churches. According to Bandy, twentieth-century folks went to church to belong to an institution, to secure status among the right social set, because neighbors and coworkers asked, “What church do you attend?” People joined to belong, and then the church set about to inform them of its structure, both implicit and explicit. Folks got nominated to committees and boards. They were groomed to maintain the church as an institution and train the next generation. Though they began as members, writes Bandy, they ended up as guardians: keepers of the institution. But in this millennium, he contends, people come to church, if they come at all, seeking something else. Not institutional belonging, not doctrine, not hierarchy, not committee meetings. People today seek deeper meaning, a greater sense of relevance and purpose. Bandy is not the only one reporting this. Every commentator or researcher I read says the same thing. People hunger to reconnect with the ground of being. For some that is God, for others, it is just that, the ground of all being, including theirs.

Bandy distinguishes between declining churches and thriving churches. Congregations, he asserts, must cross-examine themselves. Ask not what is important to many but truly essential to all?

In the newspaper article the minister of our sister congregation in Leominster says, “she tries to make religion and church life relevant for people in the post-modern age.” But even where there’s a parking lot, attendance is down on Easter. Why? Because it’s not enough to pepper our sermons with contemporary cultural references or sing folk songs. We have to act as if our lives are at stake. We have to address the deep disquieting discomforting disconnect that truncates our lives, that induces amnesia so that we forget and worse, deny our inter-being, the interdependency of the web. People come here seeking concrete ways to re-connect, to mend the torn fabric of creation, to engage in tikkun olam, not simply to do for others, but to relearn compassion for ourselves because we can’t give away what we don’t have.

People come to church not just to find relevance but to be relevant, which is to say related. Religion—from the Latin word for refasten. So how do we refasten ourselves? How do we re-member, re-attach that cleaved part that longs to be made whole?

We begin by re-connecting as Unitarian Universalists to a distinct tradition fraught with dissent that arose out of an insistence that we unite the intensity of religious fervor with our capacity for critical and compassionate thought. We recall the early martyrs of our movement who dared to speak against the religious hierarchies and edicts of their day, where their lives were literally at stake—being burned there. We teach our children and they more likely teach us what it means to take a stand—to stand with those who would otherwise go unprotected, unrepresented, whose dignity even the state would flagrantly defile.

In the nineteenth century, many Unitarian congregations split over slavery. Wealthy New England industrialists and mill owners defended it. Nothing is more profitable than slave labor. No doubt some of our churches have endowments built on those welted backs. The abolitionists who spoke up often got run out but they did not go silently because long before a gentle Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh taught two generations of westerners the term “inter-are,” abolitionists knew about the interconnectedness of being. And that knowing propelled them to speak against the willful ignorance of those who cherry-picked the Bible in defense of an economy based on defilement.
A century later, when Jim Crow still wielded the lash, a Unitarian minister in Boston named James Reeb heeded Martin Luther King’s call to join marchers in Selma. Jim Reeb died at thirty-eight leaving behind his wife and four children when white men gusseted by fear beat him for the courage of his convictions, probably because to them, pardon the phrase, he looked like a nigger-lover. He died by the hand of segregationists and for that he is remembered in Unitarian Universalist circles, but it was not his death that embodied his sense of connection; it was his years of ministry working to integrate neighborhoods and churches, and most importantly, the human heart. Jim Reeb did not duck controversy or dodge danger by eschewing the divisive. He understood the fearfulness that grips us and how quickly it transmogrifies into rage.

A decade ago, before any states had passed marriage equality laws, the church where I had interned, a church that had welcomed and affirmed me, that loved the music director and his male partner of near twenty years, fractured around the full impact of what it meant to be a welcoming congregation. The suggestion to fly a large rainbow flag met with resistance. What if people in town think we only welcome gays and not other minorities? What if people reduce us to being “the gay church”? And with equal urgency others in the congregation countered, but we are the only church that welcomes gay and transgender people. Religious institutions have rejected, vilified queer folk for centuries. Consider what it means for people to be welcomed not shunned? We have the power to do that, they pled.

A while back, during social hour, I overheard Dick mention people picketing in front of Planned Parenthood so I made an appointment a couple of weeks ago to meet the outreach coordinator there. The director of the clinic let me in. I had to ring a buzzer so the director could check the live video feed to make sure she didn’t let in someone with a weapon. If I might speak to the women for just a moment, do you remember your first pelvic exam? I was terrified. The thought of it was creepy and invasive. I cannot imagine overlaying that late adolescent self-consciousness and fear with having to be buzzed into a building because someone might burst in and shoot the doctor. It doesn’t matter that no abortions are performed in Fitchburg. To the people who carry signs equating abortion with murder, they are content to willfully ignore the statistics: that nationally, 97% of the health services Planned Parenthood provides are not related to an abortion—or that abortion is still legal. It is not that the protesters are evil or even hateful though it probably feels that way to the young woman terrified because she has missed a period, or the young man afraid he has contracted or spread an STD, who have finally summoned the courage to get tested—as they walk through the gauntlet of stares, signs and disparaging remarks.

As I said before, we live in a world that perpetually disconnects us. Each day every one of us without wanting to, or meaning to, or even thinking that we are, engage in processes that diminish life. The World Health Organization estimates that somewhere between 30-40,000 children die every day of preventable conditions, namely the lack of clean water and adequate nutrition. Right this minute there are thousands of children languishing in foster homes. And thousands more abducted, sold into sexual slavery, splayed on pornographic websites. You don’t need me to list all the ways we defile the inherent worth and dignity of so many beings. It’s easier to fixate on abortion as the single most egregious form of defilement than to reckon with all the forms in which we are complicit.

And yes, I could tell you the story of my great aunt, or really my father telling me about her, the way she came to him late in her life, when he became president of the local Planned Parenthood, and revealed to him what it had been like in the 1920s for her to climb the stairs of the tenement abortionist when she could not face bringing a third child into an apartment ravaged by an abusive alcoholic. It was not something she could discuss with her rabbi or seek solace for from her congregation.
But if one’s religious community is not a safe place to seek counsel or support or even companionship what does that say about the nature of religious community—a community intended to bind us together?

At the annual meeting I am asking that the congregation consider displaying a banner of support that reads: Love Responsibly. Support Planned Parenthood.
Why opt for something so divisive you might ask? Or seemingly political? For the same reason abolitionists objected to slavery when the biggest church donors profited from it. For the same reason Jim Reeb went down to Selma. For the same reason churches fly rainbow flags or banners supporting marriage equality.

To be relevant to the people of this congregation and community, that is to say related. To claim our connection with the heretical roots of our denomination, the branch that declared errors in the Trinity, and the branch that declared universal salvation, when both assertions sometimes resulted in death. Our denomination has been forged out of the courage to not only withstand the fires of condemnation and misunderstandding, but to champion conscience, reason, compassion and direct experience when no one else will.

We have the opportunity, as the church where I interned had years before, to publicly declare our support for people historically shunned by religious institutions: to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of the people a few blocks from here who seek medical services or work in a health clinic with surveillance cameras because our society hasn’t found a way to counter the deadliness of fear and ignorance yet.

And yes, if we hang a banner some people will say, “that’s the abortion church.”  But you know that just gives us the chance to say, “It’s not as simple as that.” Why not help shape a more thoughtful, compassionate and sophisticated dialogue? Why not re-connect with our own heretical roots? The etymological root of heresy, by the way, is choice.

Amid the overwhelming forces of disconnection, we hunger to reconnect. To restore wholeness cleaved a thousand times a day. Sisters and brothers, our lives are at stake. May we make of them a tent. Amen.