"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Courage of Our Confusion (Sunday, January 22, 2012)

           Someone once asked the great American pioneer Daniel Boone if he had ever gotten lost. Boone said that no, he had never in all his explorations been lost. But then, he paused and added that there had been a few times when he had been mighty confused for two or three days.

            Sometimes, people who are on the outside looking in at our particular religious movement might get pretty confused about what they see. A woman was once invited by her Unitarian Universalist neighbor to visit her church one Sunday, and she did. After the service, the neighbor asked her friend what she had thought. “Oh!” the visitor exclaimed, “I disagreed with half the things the minister said!” “Great!” her friend replied, “you’ll fit right in then!”

            But some people don’t see it that way. How, they ask, can you have a church that is based upon the idea that there is no single agreed-upon truth (except, that there is no single agreed-upon truth)? How can you have a religion that says that it’s about the journey, not the destination—deeds, not creeds—and that the important thing is for everyone to search for himself or herself, and try to live according to the beliefs they develop for themselves? How can you have a church where some people believe in God—and others do not. Where some people call themselves Christian—and others do not. Where some members are (even) Democrats {gasp}—Republicans (gasp)-- and others are not. It might all seem quite strange to someone more accustomed to something more conventional in religion. It might seem like a sort of religious Tower of Babel.

            Sometimes, frankly, it might seem that way from the inside, too. Like we’re building things a bit too high. As though we’ve risen too far from our foundation, too far from our base. As though we’ve all started speaking different languages, and no longer have a common vocabulary of faith that unites us; no longer have, perhaps, any real reason to be working on building this tower together. Why don’t we each just build our own towers and leave it at that?

            Sometimes, it’s easy to get mighty confused, if not downright lost, amidst all of the diversity, along all the divergent roads, which this church represents. Sometimes, we might be forgiven longing for a more fixed beacon of a staid and steady faith.

            This is especially true in these rapidly changing times in which we live, where there is so much importance attached to “branding”—on knowing what your “message” is and sticking to it—on knowing what the product you’re trying to peddle is, and to whom you are trying to peddle it. The danger of spreading ourselves too thin over too wide a demographic would seem apparent. If we try to appeal too broadly to just about everyone, then we can lose focus, and end up appealing to nobody in particular. But if we narrow things down too much, then we run the risk of doing very real damage to what we truly are about.

            None of this, of course, is especially new to our Unitarian Universalist story. (Here commences the history lesson for today. You have been warned.)

            Samuel Atkins Eliot was one of the great men of American Unitarianism in the years around the turn of the 20th century. He was certainly one of our movement’s leading organizers, and was an important force in transforming the American Unitarian Association into a cohesive national denomination, and not just a collection of individuals and societies.

            When he was just a young man—still in his twenties—Eliot left New England and traveled way out west—to Denver, Colorado—to become minister of the thriving new Unitarian church there. It was perhaps the most lively congregation with which Eliot would ever be involved; but the young man really didn’t really appreciate his new church in Denver very much. So he wrote a long letter to his father back in Massachusetts (who was the president of Harvard, by the way), bemoaning his fate:

            “I was right in supposing that this was more or less a Godless church,” the younger Eliot wrote. “Except for a nucleus of some dozen old Unitarian families [from back home] the church is made up of iconoclasts, agnostics, and ethicists… a few Jews, some Ethical Culturists, some Ingersollites, a number of recently converted [Catholics] and some people to whom religion means free trade and a [uniform tax code]. They want lectures, not sermons—information, not religion. The [Sunday] congregation averages 400 up {Why was this man complaining?}  It is composed of many of the leading business people of the city… Socially, the people are plain, middle class folk, plenty of money in the church, but no style.”

            Now, admittedly, Eliot was a young man when he went to DenverBoston (which Ralph Waldo Emerson had called the “corpse cold Unitarianism of Brattle Street” a few years before). He longed for a church cut from the same cloth that other churches were, perhaps; maybe a little more liberal, maybe a little more intellectual in its approach, but basically the same. He longed, too, for a church made up of his own kind of people—of people who shared his own sense of “style”; people who thought like he did; people drawn from his own (extremely privileged) social and economic class. Samuel Eliot felt threatened by what he encountered in Denver. He didn’t want a church that was a sort of Tower of Babel.

            Now, what relevance does this stroll down memory lane have to us today, as we consider our own church’s future, and try to discern how to keep this church afloat amidst the changing tides of the times in which we live? Certainly, diversity like that found in that church in Denver is now the norm in most UU congregations today, even right here, in our little church in Stoughton. (We probably even have a few permutations of belief and outlook that people of Eliot’s age couldn’t even have imagined.) As churches go, it is our diversity which distinguishes us from others; it is, perhaps, the predominating fact of life within our church.

            So, it seems to me that, however we decide to proceed in the years ahead, that how we learn to live with (and share) our diversity will determine, to a large extent, the success of whatever efforts we undertake.

 Thriving amid diversity does not mean suppressing what each of us believes and accepting some lukewarm status quo. We will not grow as a church by becoming the Lowest Common Denomination.  We will not find enlightenment along the spiritual path by simply accepting second hand all the beliefs of others. No, that’s how we become confused and lost, overwhelmed in the sometimes conflicting currents we can find in a church like ours.

Thriving amidst diversity means neither accepting in total what everyone else believes, nor believing nothing at all. It means holding fast to what we believe—each one of us, affirming what our own experience, reason, and intuition tell us is true for us—but always remaining open to the insights and inspirations that others have to offer us. It really is like a dance (or like a good marriage). We each have our own steps to take, but always in concert—always in relationship—with those with whom we dance.

I am convinced that we were brought together here, all of us, for a reason. Whether that reason was cosmically-inspired or not I can’t tell you fur sure (I have my opinions, but they’re matters of faith, which cannot be proven.) But I do know that there is a deeper purpose for which this church should survive, and I do know that we all have things to learn from each other, and things to teach those who currently stand outside our doors. The only way we activate that purpose and make it come alive is by treating others not as forces outside ourselves, but as integral parts of our own spiritual journeys. We need each other if we are to grow spiritually. Our communities need us, and we need them, as well.

However this church decides to proceed in the days ahead, something I know that we need are more opportunities just to talk with each other, to talk and to share why we’re here; where we came from to get here; where we see this church going. We need to schedule more experiences like the “Brainstorming for Survival” forum we’ll be having after the worship service today. We need more small circles, where people can come together to share their stories-- their insights into this wonderful spiritual adventure we are on together. We all need opportunities to speak, and to listen to what others have to say. Ministers, especially, need times to listen. We have to make sure everyone’s voice can be heard. That’s how we stay in touch with the heartbeat of our church, and can best judge its overall health.

I guess it is tempting for a minister to want a congregation that thinks and feels always the same way he does, or she does. That sees things from the same vantage point; that reacts to the world in the same way. It can be tempting, I guess, especially in a church as diverse as ours is. Being a Unitarian Universalist minister has been compared both to herding cats and to nailing Jell-o to the wall, and both are apt analogies, it seems to me, sometimes.

But is that what I’d really want? A church where everyone thought the same way I do, and believed the same things, and voted the same way {well, maybe that one!}No, it sounds like a prescription for boredom, if the truth be told. Boredom—and stagnation—and a kind of living death.

For if we are sometimes confused, we are not lost. And sometimes, we see even more amazing things along the ways of our detours than we do along the well-maintained superhighways of our lives. That was true for Sam Eliot in Denver, and for Daniel Boone wandering around the wilderness somewhere, and for us, trying to find the best road into the future.

Deep down, we would agree with Emerson that, while we wish sometimes to be settled, we know that only so far as we are unsettled is there hope for us. The Spirit—Emerson said “God”, and so would some of us—The Spirit offers us the choice between Truth and Repose. “Take which you please,” Emerson said, “but remember: You can never have both.”

If Sam Eliot were here at our little Unitarian Universalist church in Stoughton this morning, he might still be shaking his head at what he saw: “iconoclasts, agnostics, and ethicists… a few Jews…” (even a few Christians, too). To which we could add Humanists and atheists, and pagans and Buddhists, and, yes, “a number of recently converted [Catholics] and some people to whom religion means free trade and an [expanded recycling law].” Some want lectures; some like sermons—some want spirituality; others religion; and all of us dream of a world that is just and fair.

We are just plain folks, and we have our own “style”-- whatever Sam Eliot might think. This little church, this little collection of fellow pilgrims, facing the future together, our way lit only by a faith united and universal—inspired by (to paraphrase Stephen Vincent Benet):

“this dream

This land unsatisfied by little ways,

Open to every one who brings good will

This peaceless vision, groping for the stars,

Not as a huge devouring machine,

Rolling and clanking with remorseless force…

But as [a living church upon a]

living earth

where anything [could happen and]

anything could grow.

May we be bold enough to envision great things for our dear church.

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