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The third shift in my writing and preaching in the past several years can be summed up simply: more courage. I’m accessing deeper truths in myself and speaking about the things that I see as most important to me. When the writing gets scary–when it’s leading me to question things I’ve taken for granted, or to say things that might be hard to hear, or to feel scary emotions–instead of backing off, I keep going. On my best weeks, I’m giving people the most important things I’ve discovered.
This is not to be confused with self-revelation, which can be a trap for preachers. It’s easy to think that simply by talking about incidents from our own lives, we’re being brave, when sometimes we are just dumping stuff on the congregation that would be better aired to our therapists or best friends. (Sensing the distinction is one topic in the seminary course I outlined but haven’t taught, “Preaching on the Edge.”) You can’t preach well week after week without revealing a great deal about yourself, but it’s not necessarily about anything you’ve done or said. It’s about depth of soul and being willing to dig deep to that treasure and share it with others. For me, courage comes into it because I’m afraid they’ll reject my offering, or sneer “That’s all? That’s what’s in the treasure chest?” or one way or another, find my gifts inadequate. But I think the best sermons come out of that risk, because when I don’t risk it, I’m hiding what is most valuable.
I learned a lesson from Allen Ginsberg back in the mid-90s, though it took a good many years to filter into my preaching. Recordings of fifty of his poems and songs had just been released (Holy Soul Jelly Roll, Rhino), and I went to hear him read. This was an era of nudity. Madonna was breaking barriers by strutting onstage in her lingerie. Yet she never seemed very raw or vulnerable to me; on the contrary, her act felt like an act, the skimpy clothes a kind of emotional armor. Ginsberg was just the opposite. He kept all his clothes on, a 60-something-year-old man standing on a modest stage in thick glasses, a button-up shirt and khaki pants; for the most part his content was PG-rated; despite the ego required to recite one’s poetry to a crowd, he didn’t give the sense of putting himself forward in any way; and for all that, he was utterly naked. He peeled away all pretense and allowed us to see his soul. Watching him, listening to him, I realized a person can share the most intimate thoughts and feelings in a way that says not “Look at me!” but “Here, let me help you take a look inside yourself.”
True vulnerability invites vulnerability from others. That takes courage. I don’t know how others develop it; for me it’s been by doing things that scare me.
The second shift in my sermon writing and preaching was one of intention and attention. Anything can become a routine, and preaching was often a routine for me–an excruciating, four-in-the-Sunday-morning routine, sure, but still, routine in that I’d lost touch with the reason to preach, the reason people sit and listen to a sermon in the first place. It flared up in my preaching, I’m sure; it wasn’t entirely absent; but in many of my weekly struggles with writing, it had ceased to be central.
Maybe something began to shift when I began to open every service with an eight-word mission: “to transform ourselves, each other, and the world.” Another thing that brought it back now and then, brought my heart back to what was most important, was others’ great preaching. I would go to a service–typically, someone’s ordination, or the short worship services ministers lead for each other during our retreats–and the preacher’s words would rock my world. I would walk out of the service remembering what my life was about, “This, this!” and know once again, in my bones, that I needed to reorder my priorities to put the people I love most at the center (thank the departed Mary Harrington for her sermon “A Lifetime Isn’t Long Enough”); that I wanted to wake up before my short time was over (thank you, Erik Walker Wikstrom, for a sermon you gave just before your departure from Brewster, MA, in the summer of 2008). These sermons transformed me, personally. This is what I could do for the members of my congregation.
Around the same time, Christine Robinson’s Berry Street Essay, i.e., sermon, spoke to my soul by reminding me that my job was to speak to others’ souls: to allow them to be “touched to the core of [their] being.” She spoke about an experience of holiness she had on a ride at Disneyworld, and I was pressed back against my seat–it felt like 2 g’s–by these words: “The only thing you’ll really have to work with . . . is yourself and what you are willing to share of your own, precious and always threatened spiritual life.” Another wake-up call. Was I sharing of the core of myself, and was I speaking to the core of those gathered on Sundays?
Then I read Kay Northcutt’s book. My congregation, mostly atheists, humanists and naturalistic theists, might be nervous to know the title (Kindling Desire for God: Preaching as Spiritual Direction), but the fact is that whatever they love about my preaching in the past five years owes a great deal to this book. The message I took from it is: whatever your text for the week (and Northcutt, like most Christian preachers, follows a lectionary and has Biblical texts as her reading), prepare for writing by meditating and praying on that text, yes, but even more, meditate and pray on the spiritual needs of your congregation, individually and collectively. What is happening in their lives right now? What is happening in their world? What are they hungry for, frightened of, longing for? These are the “texts” for your study, preacher. Northcutt spends significant sermon-prep time each week contemplating the heart of her congregants’ being, and she says to all preaching ministers, Go and do likewise.
I had forgotten. I had been writing as if my job were to present twenty minutes of coherent and occasionally eloquent argument. Coherence and eloquence are important, but they’re just the craft of writing, and while craft is often underrated, if you’re an artist it’s intended to be the servant of meaning, and in church, the meaning is our lives. A preacher is an artist, meant to create something that is not just well-crafted but beautiful: something that will touch the core of our being.
I know why I’d forgotten this. It was a convenient amnesia, an avoidance of something that scared me. So what I needed to do, if I were to write and preach in a way that would speak to people’s spirits, was to move through my fear.
My writing and preaching have changed dramatically and for the better in the last several years, and as I find it instructive to read other people’s accounts of changes to their writing, here are three quick posts on how I changed mine. They are not a recommendation to do anything except listen to yourself and go with processes that will bring your work closer into line with what you envision. As to the specifics, they vary so much from writer to writer, preacher to preacher, that blindly adopting someone else’s approach is bound to steer you wrong. Try it out by all means, but don’t expect that every experiment will work for you the same way it worked for others.
Several things happened to me in the space of a year or two that drove the change, two of which had to do with departing from a word-for-word text and preaching from notes. A colleague shared how Mark Bellettini, well known as a riveting preacher, would take all of his thoughts and ideas for a sermon and turn them into about a half-page of notes, which is what he took into the pulpit. Some people can deliver a sermon from a word-for-word text and make it sound spontaneous, but as I couldn’t, I needed to try something else. I had been frustrated with my preaching, feeling that it lacked the immediacy and liveliness of my non-preaching speech, and I resolved aloud to try Mark’s approach.
I don’t know if I would have done it, though, if I hadn’t been thrown into the deep end by accident. I was having printer trouble one Sunday around that time, so I did something I’d done before and e-mailed myself the text to print out at church. When I got to church, I turned on my computer, found the e-mail I’d sent myself an hour earlier, opened the attachment, and sat staring. It was the wrong attachment: the order of service for that morning, not the full service with sermon included. My home was 20 minutes’ drive away; my wife was with me; there was no one at home to send the correct file, the cats being notably unhelpful in this department.
I was at church without a sermon. All those anxiety dreams, in the flesh. After I’d finished gaping at the screen, rereading the same useless document several times, and gasping for breath, only ten minutes remained before the service.
So what else could I do? I asked Chaz, the person who was to ring the bell to start the service, to hold off until I came in–I wouldn’t be long–and I grabbed a notebook and jotted down the points of my sermon. I had time to recall the beginning and end and the basic outline of the points in between, and like Mark Bellettini, I went into the pulpit with nothing else. I felt naked.
No one but Joy and Chaz knew about the mishap, and they said after the first service that the sermon had gone well. For my part, I could have done without the adrenalin rush–to this day the memory makes my heart speed–but there was no question that I spoke differently than usual: less as if I were reading something I had written, more as if I were speaking ideas to which I’d given a great deal of thought. I was excited. It was the beginning of a transformation.
This year, our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, and I have been talking a lot about the congregation’s ministry to and with teenagers. He and members of our Children and Youth Religious Education Committee will be leading a town hall-style forum on youth ministry in our congregation next week. Since there’s also been a lot of conversation on the topic among people in our district, at the retreat of the district ministers last week I and a couple of colleagues shared models of how youth ministry looks in our congregations. I didn’t have enough time to talk about all of the programs at UUCPA because they are burgeoning.
A core of our youth ministry–and the part I’m most frequently involved in–is the proactive inclusion of teens in the leadership of the congregation. In the past few years, teenagers have been on the Board, Membership & Growth Committee, and Finance Committee, and have taught Children’s Religious Education. They are responsible for the wildly popular, very well-run Children’s Auction every year during the congregation’s auction, our biggest fundraiser. Rising 7th, 8th, and 9th graders can be CITs in our pilot Ecojustice Camp.
This year, two representatives from the “Purple Class,” early teens, made a proposal to the Board for $250 to install an experimental rain barrel on church property. The Board members listened carefully, asked good questions, and voted unanimously to support the project. In fact, none of this leadership development would be possible without the support of our adult leaders, who are enthusiastic about youth taking on leadership and treat them with the respect of any congregational leader, and accommodate the particular scheduling issues of teenagers. For example, our Board terms are three years, so if a teenager doesn’t come onto the Board until their junior year, they will probably not complete the term. The Board and Nominating Committee are fine with that.
One of the most important and visible leadership roles in the congregation is that of the Worship Associates (WAs): they write and deliver a 3-5-minute reflection, confer with the service leader to help choose the readings and music, play important roles during the service (speaking the chalice lighting words, etc.), and if the speaker is a guest, emcee and coordinate the entire service. The Worship Associate’s reflection is frequently the most meaningful part of the service for the rest of the congregation. This year we have ten WAs, three of whom are under 18. This is leadership development for the teens, but face it, it’s to the congregation’s benefit as they hear the insights of the youth leading the service, and to my benefit as the minister responsible for services. I’m always looking out for good Worship Associates, and these people are good. I have my eye on so many articulate, responsible young people for next year’s Worship Associate team that if I invited them all, we wouldn’t have enough adult representation among the WAs.
Youth ministry also, of course, takes the form of groups and classes especially for youth. A Senior High Youth Group, quite independent in its leadership though there are adult advisers, meets every Sunday night. Our Whole Lives (OWL), the sexuality curriculum that we teach at all age levels and make freely available to the wider community, also meets on Sunday evenings for the 7th-9th-grade level; it’s been so popular that we are planning to offer that level every year from now on. (We need more facilitators, so we’re hosting the upcoming training.) On alternate years, we have a Coming of Age group, mostly composed of 8th graders; this is one of those years, so I’ve led three of their Sunday-evening sessions, including the planning session for their ever-popular Sunday service, coming up on May 17. They articulate their own beliefs in a written credo (Do they believe in God? What are their values? What’s most meaningful to them?) The junior-high age kids also have a Sunday morning program–their curriculum is Neighboring Faiths, where they learn about other traditions through visits and interviews–and many attend both. Youth are welcome in Adult Religious Education classes, something I realize we need to make more explicit.
This July, nine teens are going on a service trip to Belize, where they’ll be doing real, needed work rooted in the longtime relationship one of our members (now a parent of a teenager) has there through the non-profit she co-founded, Teachers for a Better Belize. They will paint one primary school, help install solar panels on another, plant an environmentally-friendly demonstration garden at a third, and stock children’s books in the libraries of several schools; they’re currently soliciting book donations and raising the funds to ship the books and buy the supplies, and they successfully petitioned the Action Council and congregation to make this project the recipient of the 10% of our offering that we give to one justice partner each month (again: congregational support for youth ministry). In the process, they’ll learn about the culture of Belize’s poorest region, where most of the people are indigenous (Mayan in this case), like so many of the Latin American residents of our own area. In recent years, other service trips have taken teens to Los Angeles and New Orleans. One of Dan’s and my goals for this aspect of our program is to fund enough scholarships that travel costs are not a barrier to any teenager who wants to go.
One of the needs we perceive is family-based youth programming: church activities that teens and other family members, especially parents, can do together. Teens need space apart from their parents, and we provide that; but they also need to negotiate the changes in their relationships with their parents, and family-based programming helps facilitate that process. We’ve been thinking about what kind of Sunday evening worship we might create, for example, that would engage parents and teens while they are here for the increasing number of Sunday-evening groups. The Adult Religious Education Committee is looking at supporting this direction by offering more of its programs on Sunday evenings–the parents could go to them while the teens are in OWL, Coming of Age, and Senior High Youth Group.
All of this is a matter of saving lives and saving souls–not from Hell, since we’re Universalists, but from the earthly hell of fear, pain, and meaninglessness. Since long before Palo Alto’s woes hit the New York Times, our congregation has grappled with the stresses that our local culture puts on teenagers. They suffer a high level of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, worry incessantly about school, lose sight of passion and joy, and not surprisingly, report that the stress levels cause them physical pain, chronic sleep deprivation, and missed periods. How can we, as a faith community, ameliorate these problems and offer a counter-cultural alternative to the high-pressure world of Silicon Valley teenagers? We know that a positive peer group, connections with caring adults in and beyond their families, meaningful opportunities to serve the community, unconditional support for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and a religious community where they can search for truth and meaning are all developmental assets that help teenagers thrive. That’s what we’re doing when we do youth ministry.
I know the Town Hall participants and attendees will add more.
The Rev. Lillian Daniel, who is so often wise and measured, kicked up a duststorm on the internet a few years ago among people who think about spirituality, religion, and the communities that make them possible, when she published a piece on her denominational website that was neither wise or measured. It was full of dubious statements such as “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself” and pure nastiness such as “Please stop boring me” (the latter was a headline, so it might not have been her writing).
As my colleague Jeremy Nickel responded at the time, Unitarian Universalist congregations welcome people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Or we do to the extent that they aren’t put off by defensive and angry ministers.
Unfortunately because of messages like yours, instead of finding that safe space within our congregational walls, they have found them in Yoga and Meditation classes, book clubs, in small group ministry settings in friends homes, in volunteer associations and online in chat rooms and on blogs, and in countless other ways that all turn out not to be your church. And I think at this point, it is becoming pretty obvious why that is.
It is not, as you mockingly suggest, because they find themselves “uniquely fascinating,” but rather because they find us, and our congregations, predictably close-minded and judgmental.
I thought he eloquently said what I wanted to say on the subject, and pretty much hit it out of the park. But the “SBNR people are rabidly individualistic” meme is alive and well, and among people that hold the key to the problem in their hands, as I learned yesterday. I’m in a workshop on preaching and worship for the future church, by Mike Piazza of the Center for Progressive Renewal, formerly pastor of the largest LGBTQ congregation in the world, and it’s terrific, and I am inspired and aided by almost everything he says. He brought up the SBNR briefly, though, and made the same complaint about individualism. The applause made it clear that a lot of UUs agree with him.
I wasn’t clapping, because as irritating as “I can do it all by myself” religion is, I don’t think that it is the main impulse behind “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” My congregation is full of people who describe themselves the same way. Hell, I would describe myself the same way if I didn’t have a lifetime’s experience of religious community’s being a place for my spirit to flourish: a nurturer of spirituality, not its enemy. But that isn’t what many Americans think of when they hear “religion.” They hear–and this information was shared, later, by Rev. Piazza himself–
People in churches demonize everything outside the churches. (Rev. Daniel walked right into that one.)
It sets itself up as an opponent of science and intellectual thought.
Now, it’s easy enough for me to see why someone would conclude that their spiritual life was not going to be helped along by such an institution. Your average American has very good reason to think that churches are hotbeds of judgment, homophobia, and anti-scientific superstition. And the Barna Group study that yielded the above responses (it’s titled “You Lost Me”) wasn’t even of people who haven’t ever gone to church–it was a study of young people who grew up in Christian churches and left. As for Unitarian Universalism, as Rev. Piazza challenged us, we are none of these things (except sometimes boring) and very few people know we exist. Whose fault is that, and who’s responsible for turning it around?
If people don’t know that there is a religion that affirms the explorations of science; that celebrates our whole lives including our sexuality, regardless of sexual orientation; that is not concerned with defending its own dogma and doctrines; well, it’s mostly because we have hidden our own light under a bushel for all these years. Too many of us, which is why I don’t give in to the temptation to lie about my profession on airplanes, but tell those who ask that I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister. And when they start witnessing to me about their faith, which happens as often as their saying “I’m spiritual but not religious,” I tell them about us: that my congregation welcomes humanists and atheists (including me) as well as theists and Christians, that we encourage people to follow their own spiritual impulses in community, that we see the Bible as a document created by and for humans, that science and our observations of nature are one of the sources of our tradition, and of course, that we unreservedly affirm LGBTQ people (again including me). The very public fight for gay rights is helping to undermine the stereotype, I think–many of us have turned the media framing of “gays versus religion” to “look, here are religions that support gays,” and all those photos in the press of UU ministers, in collars and stoles to make it abundantly clear that they are ministers, officiating at the weddings of same-sex couples, are surely having an impact. Now we also have to let everyone–those outside and those inside our walls–know that we are a home for deep spiritual exploration.
Which is to say, we need to make sure we’re not boring. Time for me to get back to my preaching and worship class.
I’ve been following Ryan Bell’s Year Without God on and off, on Facebook and his blog. I’d heard him preach at a conference for clergy involved in PICO and been very impressed by this Seventh Day Adventist pastor and his passion for economic justice, so when I heard about his year-long experiment in “challeng[ing] his beliefs and let[ting] the world watch,” as his girlfriend Rebecca Pratt summarized it, there was no question but that I’d be among the watchers.
Now, the year has ended, Bell is firmly humanist and atheist, and the responses from many Christians, especially Adventists, are predictable: a sense of loss (“Very sad”), concern for his well-being (“I will pray for him”), anger (“He has made a calculated and sharp deal with his Master”), dismissal (“It is apparent that Brother Bell was living a lie for much of his life“), condescension (“Send him a Bible”), and running through them all, a powerful assumption that no one can be happy without the kind of belief that they themselves have (“Sad, dark and empty life”).
It’s tempting to see these responses as evidence that his former co-religionists are a particularly smug and self-righteous lot, and that if the tables were turned–if, say, a Unitarian Universalist became a Methodist–we liberal-religionists wouldn’t respond this way. However, I’m afraid many would.
Would we be able to let them go to their new spiritual home without criticizing it–“Christianity is just a myth–I prefer reality”? Would we insist on rewriting their life story–“You must not have understood science to begin with”? Would we proclaim our superiority with statements such as “Well, some people need a crutch”?
I cited the Christians whose responses to Bell’s journey have been defensive and judgmental. Fortunately, many others seem secure enough in their own faith to wish him only the best, accepting that spiritual paths other than their own might lead to a person’s being good, happy, and fulfilled. I hope every Unitarian Universalist who ever meets an ex-UU will do likewise. “Not all those who wander are lost,” we seekers like to say. And not all who choose a different path than ours are heading in the wrong direction.
This morning I was behind a car whose bumper sticker read,
IMAM AZIZ MUHAMMAD HIGH SCHOOL
Home of the Jihadis
As I got closer and we waited at the light, I realized I’d misread it. It said,
ARCHBISHOP RIORDAN HIGH SCHOOL
Home of the Crusaders
Whew. That’s all right, then.
Renee Ruchotzke wrote about them well: services that cruelly promise inspiration but deliver a lecture and inexpert music instead. People come seeking spiritual sustenance and, after hearing an address on beekeeping, “cross this church off [their] list.” Unitarian Universalist congregations have a bad habit of giving people time in the pulpit as an act of kindness–kindness to the speaker, but not to the listeners–and letting their concerns for quality go by the wayside, especially in summer.
This summer, I was a spiritual seeker far from home and eager to go to church while on vacation, and from that experience I gained a nugget to add to Renee’s wisdom. It isn’t enough to offer a service full of inspiration; you have to make it clear, from your publicity, that that’s what it’s going to be.
I was in a city where I know nothing about the congregation, and what I saw on the website was an address by the director of a local community organization, talking about . . . the work of his organization. The title didn’t pose a question or suggest that the sermon was going to try to answer any. Now, it’s possible that his address was deeply spiritual. The blurb describing the service said something about the way we all need the arts, and that could be the heart of a heart-centered sermon, but it sounded an awful lot like a standard spiel by a passionate advocate of a good cause. We all know them. Once in a while they are terrific, which is to say, they think about the audience and address their needs. More often, they are barely disguised appeals for funds, or just general support for their cause. No matter how excellent the cause, this is not the kind of thing I want to hear at the best of times (just send me your brochure, please; I can read it in two minutes, rather than listen to the 20-minute equivalent), and certainly not in lieu of spiritual reflection and guidance for my life. There is a time and place at church for community organizations to talk about their work: Wednesday evening, in the Emerson Room. Not Sunday at 10 a.m. in the sanctuary.
If I’d been a few minutes away, I might have risked it. But to get there, I was going to have to negotiate the bus system of an unfamiliar system and travel 50 minutes each way, and I just wasn’t willing to put that kind of effort into attending a lecture. So if it wasn’t a lecture, I’m sorry. I hope whoever writes the newsletter the next time will remember that what they are about to write is all their visitors know about that Sunday’s service. Ask yourselves: is this really a worship service? If it isn’t, please reschedule it for a different time. If it is, make sure it sounds like it from the publicity. Because if it isn’t enticing, many of us are just going to stay home.
A brief prayer from The Left Hand of Darkness comes to me often. On the planet Gethen, in the book, it’s from the Handdara; here on Earth, it sounds like something from process theology. I was moved to say it by today’s photo on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day:
“Praise Creation unfinished!”
One could write a book (and I’m sure many have) on Emily Dickinson’s complex attitude toward prayer. I’m reading all of her poems in order, and the one I read today, #576, is more straightforward than many in its treatment of prayer:
I prayed, at first, a little Girl,
Because they told me to —
But stopped, when qualified to guess
How prayer would feel — to me —
If I believed God looked around,Each time my Childish eye
Fixed full, and steady, on his own
In Childish honesty —
And told him what I’d like, today,And parts of his far plan
That baffled me —
The mingled side
Of his Divinity —
And often since, in Danger,
I count the force ‘twould be
To have a God so strong as that
To hold my life for me
Till I could take the Balance
That tips so frequent, now,
It takes me all the while to poise —
And then — it doesn’t stay —
She no longer believes in the God of her childhood, but she feels the lack. It’s interesting that the way it feels to live without that strong God isn’t expressed as pain, fear, sorrow, loss, or even uncertainty, but lack of balance. Maybe this poem isn’t as straightforward as I thought at first. Dickinson has a way of doing that. Whatever poise a reader possesses, she disturbs it, almost as if she set out on purpose to do it.