The Work (In Progress)

If the pundits are to be believed, organized religion in North America is a losing proposition and leadership in religious institutions a fool’s errand.

Much has been made recently of the latest information from the Pew Trust Religion and Public Life survey. Religious affiliation in this country is in rapid decline, particularly among younger people. The number of people who respond “None of the Above” to the question, “What religion are you?” is increasing exponentially.

These latest findings, which are in line with similar surveys and studies that have been coming out over the last several years, have unsurprisingly increased the hand wringing among those of us who are not only affiliated with a religion, but care deeply about its future.

There was a time when religious institutions could depend on a stable population of volunteers and donors. Houses of worship could sit pretty on the town green or on the main street and expect people to come to them. Attendance at a house of worship was an expectation (if not an obligation) that most fulfilled, particularly in the period after the Second World War. Clergy were respected in the culture at large as leaders and moral guides. Religious institutions were trusted, and the charitable work they did was lauded and commended.

There’s been a dramatic shift over the last generation. People now are generally suspicious of institutions, and much less likely to join one or sustain it financially. Clergy sexual misconduct, and its cover-up, along with financial malfeasance among religious leaders, has dashed forever the automatic trust people might once have had in clergy. Faith communities compete with all kinds of enticements and regular attendance at worship has fallen.

The seismic shifts that are taking place beneath our feet are breaking centuries-old encrustations and tectonic plates. The religious institutions that once seemed rock solid are crumbling and the very foundations of church are shaking. Centuries of church establishment and Christendom are crumbling and falling away in this generation. For those inside its collapsing edifice, these changes are painful and frightening, to be sure.

Yet it is also an exciting time to be the church.

Without the culture and the state propping up religious observance, who and what will be left? Stripped of power, privilege and persuading influence, what role can organized religion play in our social order? If our neighbour isn’t knocking on the church door to be let in, how will we be sent to serve our neighbour?

The possibilities are endless and exciting. What will faith communities look like in the decades ahead?

We just can’t imagine the future. It’s hard to imagine a future when everything is up for grabs. Telling people that our pipe organs and meetinghouses and hymn books, our meeting for worship and our meeting for worship on Sunday mornings, may not be in the church’s future is met with the blankest of blank stares. What’s left? To say nothing of the change in basic assumptions—people are not coming to you, you need to go to them.

A year ago, I preached a sermon at the First Parish in Lexington, where it has been my honour to serve as their minister these last five years, which I think might become my lasting legacy. They continue to speak about “the phone booth sermon.” I began by asking the congregation, “How many of you remember telephone booths?” Most everybody raised their hands. Then I asked, “How many of you, at some time in your life, have used a public phone?” Again, just about everybody raised their hand. And then I asked, “How many of you have used a public phone in the past seven days?” There was laughter, and not a single hand in the air.

And yet, it’s not as if people don’t need to speak on the phone when they’re out in public. People still want to be able to reach others when they’re away from home. And we continue to do so. It’s just that how we do it has completely changed.

Nobody could have imagined, forty years ago, that we would all be walking around with little phones on our person, phones not tethered to the wall. We couldn’t have imagined this change. We had no way of knowing this is what “talking on the phone in public” would look like in the future.

When it comes to church, we only know how to ask for what we have always known.

We think maybe if we update our Web site, or use guitar in worship, or create a Facebook page, we will be well positioned for life in the twenty-first century. We cannot even imagine the entirely new, reinvented church of the future. So we keep asking for what we already know, only maybe with a few modifications when what we need is a complete, creative, innovative breakthrough.

Henry Ford once said, “If I gave my customers what they wanted, I would have invented a faster horse.”

Those whose hope is in institutions and habits, as they are, whose hope is in the ability of church people to change, those are the ones who are really panicking. Because our most enduring slogan is, “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before.”

But the good news is, there are powers greater than any human made institution, including the church. There’s a spiritual power moving in the world greater than our habits, including our religious habits.

I believe there are powers of regeneration and renewal alive in our world that are constantly calling us to be, and to become, and to be-in-relation. There is a power greater than ourselves that simultaneously invites, sustains, and constitutes mutual dependence and community, constantly drawing together disparate elements and people, eternally expressing itself as love. These forces within and among us are known by many names, including God or the Goddess.

God is doing a new thing. When something interesting or creative or new is afoot and church people are shocked or dismayed, I pay close attention. Because I think that if it upsets church people, it is probably of God. If it is overturning those intractable idols of “what we have always believed” or “the way things have always been,” I am certain God is in the midst of it. When a vibrant spiritual thing is happening on the margins, in the peripheral vision of the established religious institutions, I think, “Now that’s some Holy Spirit power right there.”

God is doing a new thing. That creative and creating power at the heart of the universe is doing a new thing. And a new thing sometimes means letting the old thing crumble away and fall apart.

The pathway to renewal and revival goes straight through defeat and decline. The pathway to resurrection goes straight through the shadowy valley of death. The church needs to die to the church in order for what comes next to come to life.

The trappings that our faith comes in are falling away. There may not be meetinghouses and churches and pipe organs and stained glass and hymnals a generation from now. We might not meet for worship on Sunday morning. But what is essential and at the core of our liberal way of being religious is timeless.

What is essential is the life-giving message that we were born to original blessing–

that there is a better way of being in relationship with each other, ourselves, our natural environment–

better ways of being a society together–

that forgiveness is better than anger–

that love and compassion and generosity and solidarity are better than fear and self-centeredness.

Yes, better.

And yes, life-saving and transformative.

This is at the heart of our liberal religious faith. What we offer as religious liberals is in fact sorely needed in our world today.

Now more than ever, our nation needs our witness. Now more than ever, our communities need our witness. Now more than ever, our planet needs our witness.

How we reach our nation and communities, and what our life together as communities of faith will look like, we are still figuring out.

What kind of a common life we will be inviting people in to, we are still figuring out.

What it all will look like, we’re still discerning.

The pipe organs and meetinghouses, the way we do worship and religious education and social action, our Web sites and Facebook pages, our newsletters and rummage sales and potlucks—these all may or may not any longer serve our purposes. They are all transient. They are all impermanent.

What is required of us in this historic moment is the faith that what is lasting will endure. And the courage and the staying power and the imagination to gracefully let go of what no longer suits us.

To gracefully let go of what is no longer of service to our ministry and mission.

To gracefully let go of what keeps us from reaching our full potential as a liberal religious movement in this time, this twenty first century.

Because it’s not change that we resist–it’s loss. We resist loss. And we are losing so much.

The good news is, the path of loss leads to new life.

The expressions of our faith have evolved over the decades and centuries, and so we evolve some more.

The restoration of God’s people that the prophet Isaiah envisions is radiant and triumphant. I believe our way way forward is through humility and modesty and accepting our marginalized position in the culture, accepting that what we are, and what we do, is countercultural.

We are going to get used to being on the margins of the social order, to inhabiting the “abandoned places of empire,” to living among the ruins of Christendom and established religion. And, with God’s help, liberated to do a new thing.

We whose work it is to bring us into our future as a vibrant, lively, faithful people need to have the imagination to stretch beyond what we have known, and what we think is the way church is supposed to be, the courage to try something new–to experiment, the imagination to invent something new around which our core is built and expressed.

What is required is attentiveness to the Spirit, to pay attention to the promptings and invitations of the Spirit, to discern the new thing God is doing, to get comfortable with failure as we experiment.

We don’t have to have it all figured out. This clinging to certainty only causes suffering. We don’t have to be in control. We can do our part for reimagining how to be church, the shape of how we are to be faithful together, but the work will always be a work in progress.

“The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.” (Ken Untener)

This does not allow us to take our hands off the steering wheel and say, “Okay Higher Power, you drive this thing!” We do what we are able to do. We play the part we know is ours to play. We answer the call to serve. And do our best. And let go of the outcome.

In the Talmud, we read: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:21)

The work continues. It is a work in progress.

Because just like people talk on the telephone in public without public pay phones, without telephone booths, we will continue our shared ministry whatever shape that it takes.

Because just as people still need to talk on the phone in public, people still need what we have to offer.

As long as people search for significance in their lives, we will be there.

As long as people long for meaning in life, we will be there.

As long as people, grieving the death of loved ones, want to celebrate life and bury their dead, we will be there.

We will be there as long as people ask Why?

As long as people want to make a difference in the life of others, as long as the need to serve others arises in human hearts, as long as people ask How? when it comes to living a life of compassion, generosity and gratitude, we will be there.

We will be there.

We whose task it is to love the hell out of the world–

whose task it is to bind up the broken–

to provide salve to the wounded, to heal the hurt–

to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and, yes, raise the dead–

we whose task it is to minister will not shrink from the work.

Aligning ourselves with the divine will, paying attention to the direction of Spirit, with God’s help, we will be there.

This post is the sermon delivered at the ordination of the Rev. Aaron Stockwell by the First Parish Church in Groton, Massachusetts on 6 June 2015. The readings were Isaiah 65:17-25 and “A Step Along the Way” by Bishop Ken Untener.

Letter to a Colleague (On Leaving the Parish)

So it seems I’m not alone among our colleagues. This year, there are fewer available ministers than there are Unitarian Universalist congregations seeking interim ministers. The reasons cited for this situation include a bumper crop of retirees and a fair number of ministers who are leaving the parish.

And I am one of them.

There was a time when celebrity clergy were publishing memoirs about “leaving church” and we both rolled our eyes at that. Thanks for the vote of confidence, friend, and for dissing the institution we are pouring our lives out for.

And yet here I am reflecting publicly on my reasons for leaving my current parish ministry as I move on into something else. Not leaving ministry, and certainly not “leaving church,” just going back to school to get what I need to do ministry in a different setting.

Part of it, for me, is being spooked by all of the doomsday predictions and catastrophic forecasts about declining religious affiliation and its ramification for local faith communities. I experience, like many ordained ministers, equal parts excitement and terror at the reality that congregational life as we know it is going to be very different in the decades ahead.

We’re not going to be able to count on a regular paycheque from a local church–indeed, many of us currently do not. Seminarians are now being prepared for a “bi-vocational” career in ministry, which in a way is what I am doing. I may or may not take up part time parish ministry in the future. I do love it very much.

I love congregational life, and I love the work I get to do in the parish. Reinventing the local church to thrive in organized religion’s reduced circumstances is the kind of creative opportunity I might be invigorated by.

What can I tell you? I’m tired.

I became an aspirant and candidate for ministry in my twenties. Remember what that was like—ready to conquer the evils of the world, transform our religious movement while proclaiming its gospel to churches we were growing to twice their size by our astounding feats of preaching and public witness!

When I was in my twenties and thirties, this was fine. I had the energy and ego strength to do all this and go out dancing afterwards. In my late forties, it takes greater effort.

In entering the second half of life, I’m more sensible about my abilities and interests, more realistic about my limitations. I’m more clear on which values and needs and desires I want to shape my life around, the settings in which I feel most at home.

I find that I’m becoming more and more introverted the older I get. This hasn’t meant withdrawing, only that it costs my spirit more, especially without adequate time replenished by solitude.

Obviously, I still engage in all the public aspects of ministry—the social hours and potlucks, the Memorial Day ceremonies and clergy meetings—it takes more out of me. As do the usual visits and calls, staff meetings and board meetings, and all the other assemblies in which I find myself.

There is never enough time. It seems like just as I am catching my breath it is time to start running again. The moment I feel rested is followed by the moment of heading back to work. Not much time for relationships, for family, for exercise, for cooking myself nutritious meals. Everything is on the go. I thank God for my ministerial colleagues, with whom I spend more time than any other kind of friend.

Am I burned out? I don’t think so. I have long maintained good boundaries, taken Sabbath time consistently, and on some days chose self-care over an unfinished to-do list.

It’s not enough for me.

What I need is a slower pace, a more spacious schedule (as I told my congregation, pronouncing it the American way), a better balance between work, rest, and play, a ministry in which I am not the constant moving target. The twelve hour days are not sustainable to my spirit, especially as they come back to back.

My congregation has been superb at encouraging me to rest and study, to take the time off allotted to me. Lay leaders have reminded me to say No when I might have said Yes, to let a congregant’s unmet responsibility drop rather than catch it.

No, the fatigue I experience is harder to pin down, its remedy more than time off.

We hold the presence of the church on our person, the mantle of spirit around our shoulders. When we show up in the operating recovery room at the hospital, it is the church that shows up. When we drive over to the bereaved family’s home after the death of loved one, it is the church that is showing up for them. That is a huge responsibility that we would always remember when we don our stoles before leading worship. L’église c’est moi, as Louis XIV might have said.

That stole, that weighty mantle, is often very, very heavy to carry day in and day out.

What is exhausting, and perhaps something lay people aren’t aware of, is the psychic energy that goes in to being the screen for their projections and desires. A good minister is constantly discerning: Is this really about me? Or is this member of my congregation actually interacting with their parent or spouse or boss? What is really happening here?

Graciously being that screen for their fantasies and expectations and aggression without getting hooked and reeled in to the drama they want to act out with you takes a lot of soul power.

To say nothing about when it actually is about us, and having to remain open and non-defensive.

Skillful ministers do this well, but even the most self-differentiated clergy person, once exhausted by the effort, will have “one of those days.” And then one finds oneself apologizing and making amends for actions (or inaction) that most people take for granted and let slip by. It is the cost of the pastoral relationship, of right-relation, and our calling is to model it.

That can feel deceitful when on the inside we are heaping curses on the person we are asking to forgive us. It’s really more artful than artifice, but that divide feels more and more dishonest to me. Skillful self-differentiation is an art, but I don’t believe true authenticity is ever available to us as parish ministers. (Nor should it be. We both know emotionally unintelligent colleagues who wish to share everything with their congregation. And how that turns out).

The lesser burden is to listen with forbearance to a tiresome and uninformed parishioner drone on and on about some religious topic, or some church matter, some thing that you and I studied in depth at graduate school, in seminary. Our expertise takes second place to making this person feel heard.

It is our burden to carry all of the truths that are unable to be enunciated publicly, all of what is confessed to us in the minister’s study, often without any hope of absolution.

But we also hold the organization’s truths, truths that, for the sake of the congregation, are never told by us—even when it would vindicate or excuse or explain some action taken.

You and I know that the church is an employer as well as a faith community, but that is not so obvious to our people. As chief of staff, it is up to us to hire, evaluate, manage and sometime dismiss church employees. The process, by necessity private and confidential, is lost on most parishioners. To such folks, church staff are members of the family, treated like a fellow member, and are to be treated the way parishioners are.

Although lay leaders certainly provide detailed feedback for evaluations, even the evaluation process is lost on the average parishioner. So when the time comes to dismiss an employee—for not performing their duties, for not following an improvement plan, for being unwilling to learn needed skills, or, as you certainly know, for some other egregious misconduct—all the congregation sees is a beloved “friend” being “forced” to leave the church.

And we have to sit there, with our lay leaders, silently, while aggrieved members of our congregations make a big noise. Knowing we will never break confidentiality, knowing we can never share the true story of why that staff person was dismissed. We have to grin and bear it, no doubt making our Puritan ancestors proud.

We have to die to ourselves, so that the congregation might live.

It is the art of skillful self-differentiation, a burden I gladly took on at ordination, that now costs me more than I have left to spend. I’m spent.

I love congregational life, and I love my congregation. Good ministers are always “in” the congregation, but never really “of” it. It is the tragic irony of our role. We love religious community so much we dedicate our lives to its health and prosperity, only to find we no longer can belong fully to a church the way we did before becoming ministers.

I miss that.

I miss being at worship regularly and not being at work. I miss singing in the choir and teaching in the religious education program for children. I miss having my soul tended to by a gathering of imperfect, loving, genuine people—among whom I am most authentically myself, my undivided, wholehearted self.

This nostalgia is a kind of homesickness for church life at its best.

What can I say? I want to go home.

Lifeline: A Reflection on Vocation

In the early 1990s, the popular avant-garde performance artist Laurie Anderson climbed the Himalayas. She was accompanied by about a dozen other climbers, eight sherpas (Tibetan guides), and a number of yaks. They were on a journey to view a lake high in the mountains where, it was said, the next Dalai Lama’s name is written in a secret language on the surface of the water.

At 22 000 feet, Anderson began to suffer from altitude sickness and quickly worsened, with a temperature of 104 degrees, hallucinations and severe headache. The party decided to take her back down. Anderson was zipped into a body bag, put on the back of a donkey, and led down by another American mountain climber who was in the group.

She was not expected to survive.

I heard Laurie Anderson tell this harrowing story in a performance in Montreal years ago. The young man who accompanied her down the mountain was a shy, quiet person. He had barely said a word the entire time. The whole way down, the taciturn man led the donkey along the steep pathways, while this ostensibly dying woman weaved in and out of consciousness.

Anderson asked him to talk, to keep talking as they made their way. Which he did. He told her to look at the stars, to look at the rocks.

“By giving me some little thing to hold on to and concentrate on,” she said later, “he saved my life.”  It wasn’t merely the things he got her to pay attention to that saved her life, but his voice. Focusing on his calm voice, reassuring by its presence. His voice was like a rope, Anderson says, which she clung to, a rope that guided her. It was, as she says in one of her songs, a “tightrope made of sound/This long line made of my own blood…/This long thin line./ … This tightrope.”

I imagine what it might be like, in a chaotic world of searing, blinding pain and swirling hallucinations. The steady, sturdy guide, something sure to hold on to, a constant, calm voice holding me as much as I hold on to it. A voice, like a rope pulling me out of the depths.

The word “vocation” has its root in the word for voice. Many people who enter the ministry, who enter a profession, often speak in terms of vocation. It is as if there is a voice, calling you forward, calling to you, summoning you, and to which you must respond. Sometimes it even might be a rope made of sound, a long thin line, a lifeline.

Discernment of vocation can be a matter of hearing the voice, listening for it. Focusing on it.

During a minister’s formation, discernment is an essential pursuit. There is a decision to be made about whether or not to pursue ordained ministry, or what kind of ministry to pursue, but discernment is greater than decision-making.

It’s more of a threshing, as when a farmer separates grain from plant. A potential minister sifts through her gifts and desires, strengths and weaknesses, her history and spirituality. And in that threshing, something emerges. The seed, the grain, separated from the chaff, surfaces. An interest in religious traditions, a love for spiritual practice, a devotion to one’s faith community, a passion for social justice. The desire to make a difference in the lives of others. That seed which becomes apparent are kernels of a future life in ministry, that will germinate over time, grow roots and reach toward the light.

James Hillman, the great depth psychologist, speaks of the “acorn” in his book The Souls Code. The future oak tree, its potential, is present in the acorn. In the same way, within each of us is the potential of what and who we are becoming. We have within us the seed of what we are meant to be. We come into this world with the inner information we need to become most fully ourselves. The task of discernment, for all of us, is to uncover our inborn acorn. Our mission in life is to answer its imperatives, to say yes to its full flourishing.

Children do, it turns out, come into the world with their own personalities, their own characteristics.

What is innate and unique in you?

How would you characterize your traits? your gifts? your strengths?

A life in ministry, a life launched by responding to the voice, unfolds over time and as seasoned ministers will attest, you find yourself (or lose yourself) in a flurry of details, tasks that pull at you in differing, simultaneous directions, unmet needs of those you serve that gnaw at you, all folded into the achievements, and hard work, and happy occasions. That original voice loses its volume. That saving voice is increasingly lost to the chaos and clamour that is everyday life.

Whatever idea that got planted in one’s mind, in one’s soul, that original voice that beckoned and invited and summoned, need not fade into the background noise of daily life. Return to it often. Whatever is most true, most genuine, most compelling for you, return to that. Remember that.

There are times in our lives, aren’t there, when we experience a kind of dislocation in the middle of our perfectly good enough life. It’s as if the inner self or the soul is estranged from the self the world sees. The inner self, the soul, is alienated, apart from, the self that the world knows, different from what is presented to the world. You look around and go, What am I doing here? Is this my life? 

These experiences of drift, of nothingness, of emptiness are what mystics name the dark night of the soul. The conventional lives we have been given, or the lives we have made for ourselves, suddenly seem inadequate or inauthentic. The script given to act out no longer make any sense, and our lives ring hollow with our deepest sense of ourselves, grate against the skin of our living. This isn’t me, an inner voice can be heard to say. This life is not my own. And then if this isn’t me, what is me? Who am I?

In such times, we have drifted away from that inward guide, the voice. Listen for it. Discern where the thread is, find it, and allow it to suggest a new pattern. At whatever age we are or stage in life, in whatever profession we work, finding that call and being true to it is a life’s work.

Do you remember the voice that first whispered in your ear: I’m good at this. Here is work to which I could see myself dedicating my life. This speaks to me.

This speaks to me.

Remember. Make every effort to remember when the going gets tough, when the days are long, and the burdens heavy. Hold on to it. Hold on to the long thin line, the rope made of sound, made of the voice to which you said, Yes.

Keep saying yes.

For all of us spiritual beings having a human experience, we need to be centred, I believe, centred in the best of who we are. In our inward guide, the acorn of our possibilities. Our innate gifts and capacities, and what living them out might imply. A power deeper and wider than ourselves. An original sense of who we are meant to be, grounded in the native soil of our own soul.

Because we all have a vocation, a calling.

Laurie Anderson survived her trip to the Himalayas. She wrote a couple of pieces about it, about her brush with death, and dedicated one to the young man who talked the whole way down, saving her life.

Listen for the voice that calls you to your best self.

It might just save your life.

This post was a homily given at the ordination of the Rev. Nicoline Guerrier at the Unitarian Church of Montreal on 14 May 2015. It was also shared with the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association at the UUA weekly chapel service on 19 May 2015, during the week of the first year ministers seminar. 

Becoming Multicultural: What’s Lost in Translation

When I was growing up, my family went to church every Sunday. Squeezed into the car, we played a game as we approached Saint George Greek Orthodox Church—who was first to spot the steeple as it came into view.  We were not Greek, but of the two Orthodox congregations in the city, this was closest to us culturally. The other one was Russian and had a gilded onion-shaped dome. As Orthodox Christians from the Middle East, we had more in common with the Byzantine than the Slavonic tradition.

We were reminded that we were not Greek. My mother’s contributions to the women’s auxiliary cookbook were not included in the final publication because they were “not Greek,” though it did include recipes for things like pizza. My brother got bumped from playing the little drummer boy in the Christmas pageant in favor of a little drummer boy who happened to be Greek-American.

Despite our presence, and the presence of second and third generation Greek-Americans, worship was entirely in Greek.

When my family moved to a city that had more than one congregation in the Antiochian archdiocese, whose primary bishop, or patriarch, was in Damascus, Syria, the experience changed.  Made up primarily of immigrants from Lebanon and Syria, we were no longer cultural outsiders. Worship was in English and Arabic.

Church was more than a congregation of the faithful. It was also a cultural ingathering of Arabic-speaking immigrants, many longing to recreate something of the old country on the cold and snowy shores of North America. One of the first institutions immigrants from Lebanon and Syria built on this continent when they began arriving at the end of the nineteenth century were churches, which aided new arrivals and provided solace for the homesick. Gathered together around shared language and culture, these churches were islands of the familiar in a strange new world.

Ethnic and religious traditions were inseparable in our home. In addition to our birthdays, we also celebrated our “feast” day, the day of the year dedicated to the saint we were named after, complete with cake and ice cream. On the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, in late June, we usually went to the beach to celebrate.

I used to think that we made special foods—a thick, sweet pudding of apricots, wheat, aniseed and other spices called bourbara—on the feast of Saint Barbara because my grandmother, the family’s matriarch, was named Barbara. I didn’t realize at the time it’s a major holiday for Arab Christians.

Saint Barbara’s day was followed by Saint Sabas the next night and Saint Nicholas the night after that. On each night, we left out a plate of sweets on the dining room table. The saint whose feast it was each night visited us. They left coins for us on the edges of the saucers. We were forbidden to touch the candy until the final night—Saint Nicholas Day—when we collected our money and ate the candy. At Christmas, we decorated an evergreen tree, and then sat around the illuminated tree in the dark singing carols in English and Arabic.

During Lent, there were meatless meals that seemed to always involve lentils. (For years Lent and lentils in my mind resonated together). Years later, as a university student with a limited income, I ate plate after plate of mjuddareh (lentils, rice, and onions) wondering when that particular Lent was ever going to end.

The fast of course culminates in Holy Week and Easter. On Palm Sunday, we brought home the palm leaves from the church service. I never could learn how to fold and tie them into the shape of the cross, but other family members could. They would be tucked behind the corners of the icons that decorated our home—images of Jesus, the saints, the Theotokos (the “God-bearer,” as Mary is known).

During Easter, everyone was greeted with the words: al-Masih qam! (Christ is risen!).  For Easter, we decorated Easter eggs and played a game of cracking them. You held your egg in your fist, and your challenger would tap their egg against the top of yours and the one whose egg cracked lost the game. And whoever cracked everybody else’s Easter egg was that year’s champion. Other foods we made (and by “we” I mean “Mom”) and ate at home included date-filled pastry (kaik) that, because it was shaped like a donut was said to symbolize the crown of thorns that Jesus was forced to wear, and another nut-filled pastry (ma’amoul) represented his scepter.

The foods, habits, and traditions of my ancestors were inseparable from the religion they practiced. Our identity as Arab-Americans was expressed in cultural practices of both home and church. Church was the only place, outside the home, that I heard Arabic being spoken. Church, the religion, was the container for a great deal of our ethno-linguistic identity, the repository and source for our culture.

The Orthodox Church in North America is usually thought of as an “ethnic church.” Most Orthodox Christians trace their roots to Eastern Europe or the eastern Mediterranean. Ethnicity, from the Greek church of my early childhood, to the Arab church of my later childhood and youth, was a central ingredient of who we were together as the church.

When I could no longer in good conscience practice the religion, I went about searching for a spiritual home. I landed upon my local Unitarian congregation because they promised to welcome all of who I was. Advocates for peace, social justice, inclusiveness and the dignity of gays and lesbians, Unitarian Universalists were my intellectual, political and spiritual kindred. I joined as soon as I was able.

What makes an “ethnic church” an ethnic church? Is it when most of the people there share an ethnic or cultural or linguistic identity? Most of the Unitarian Universalist congregations I have served and known are overwhelmingly white and Anglo Saxon. Why do we not imagine Unitarian Universalism to be an “ethnic church”?

The hegemonic culture experiences itself as universal. I am reminded of this when I frequent a supermarket full of food and then find the aisle labeled “ethnic foods.” Because Anglo Saxons don’t have an ethnicity, the way that heterosexuals don’t have a sexual orientation, and men don’t have a gender. At church, this can mean that Western European culture is simply “music” or “literature” or “hymns.” And not “European music” or “Anglo hymns.” But on some special Sundays, we’ll have Latino music or African-American hymns or South Asian literature.

The “universal” culture of Unitarian Universalism is Protestant and Anglo. This is an historical fact, not an accusation. There is nothing wrong or shameful about Anglo Saxon or Western European culture. Because I assumed this false universal, it took me a long time to even realize the translation that had taken place in my religious life, from a Mediterranean medium to an Anglo one. It just took me a while to recognize that I had in fact gone from one ethnic church to another. And that I had lost something in that translation.

It was only after I began to bump up against prejudice toward Arabs and Arab-Americans among Unitarian Universalists that I began to wonder about such things. UUs are not immune to the ignorance about (and even suspicion and hostility toward) Arabs and Arab culture that is ubiquitous on this continent.

(There’s no reason to rehearse all the hurtful and ignorant things UUs have done and said, but I want to mention my favorite. I’m often asked when my family converted to Christianity, which is particularly rich since we are from Palestine, with roots in Jerusalem that go back hundreds of years. Where do they think Jesus was from, anyway? Europe? I usually answer, “Oh about two thousand years ago!”)

I’ve loved every Unitarian Universalist church I’ve been in—even the ones that were hard to love. UUs are my people. And at the same time, UUs are not my people. My people are also ones who revere icons and put out saucers for the saints and eat lentils during Lent. My ethnos is made up of people who speak Arabic (and speak it loudly) and pepper their speech with references to God—God willing, God forbid, praise God.

Unitarian Universalists ask, “How can we become more multicultural? How can we attract more members of different cultural communities to our congregations?” These are good questions. Let’s also ask, “What do members of different cultural communities lose when they join a Unitarian Universalist congregation?” Because the losses can be significant and can include being cut off from a major source of ethnic pride, connection and identity—the “ethnic” churches from which we came.

At times I have felt at home among the Unitarian Universalists and at times I have felt exiled among the Unitarian Universalists. Following the dictates of my conscience and the leadings of the Spirit has simultaneously meant finding a community of faith and losing an important access point to the culture of my ancestors. I found a place that speaks my religious language but that only speaks it in English.

Of course, there are other ways of remaining connected to my ethnic community—none of them are woven as tightly or thoroughly into daily life the way religious traditions are.

Except for food! Have you noticed how much I mention food? The food I eat and make has become the carrier of cultural traditions. I don’t speak Arabic in my household, but I do often eat Arabic food—even when it’s called by non-Arabic names like pita or baklava or even Turkish coffee.

And I rest assured that should my Unitarian Universalist congregation ever put together a cookbook of parishioners’ recipes, my contributions will be welcomed and included.

The Church of No Offense

A couple of years ago, I was considering coming to a certain church to do ministry with the congregation there. I came to the town to visit for a weekend, look at places to live, and speak with the committee that was searching for a minister. It was an established church in a lovely small town. I was shown around town by various members of the committee and at one point, walking around town, one began telling me the story of how he had come to this church.

“My partner and I were new in town,” he said. “And we didn’t know anybody in the area and we wanted to get better connected in the community. We figured joining a church was a really good way to start networking. So we looked around and decided on the Unitarian Universalist church in town because of them all, it was the least offensive.”  I enjoyed his frankness. This thoughtful man was a leader in his congregation, had found a home there. People join congregations for all kinds of reasons–advantageous business networking, finding a date, finding a job, developing a real estate practice. These are some of the real, practical reasons that people affiliate with communities of faith. They’re no better or worse than wanting a religious education for one’s children, exploring questions of meaning, comforting during a time of transition.

And the fact that this congregation didn’t promulgate anything he and his partner found offensive was the clincher. No hellfire and brimstone, no judging LGBT people negatively, no political positions, no onerous requirements intellectually, financially, or in any other way.

All kinds of people, in all kinds of conditions gather together in congregations for all kinds of reasons.

We need different things from church at different times in our lives–comfort, guidance, edification, challenge. When a local congregation is at its best, it is offering these disparate things simultaneously through its programs–its ministries–and its worship. We are also called upon to offer different things to our co-congregants and the institution at different times.

Sometimes, the church is a refuge, a haven, to gather in the brokenhearted and despairing. We gather for healing, to be strengthened, to be renewed in hope, to be reminded of our deepest convictions. Ultimately, we are gathered in this way in order to be sent back to the world. Our broken hearts are offered balm in order to go back to a world (a workplace, a family, a neighborhood, a nation) strengthened if not completely made whole. We are offered hope and courage in order to return to a world in which we strive to create justice and peace and a sustainable future for the planet.

There are plenty of Unitarian Universalists who have absolutely no interest in mission or outreach, let alone evangelism, and don’t think their congregation ought to be mission-driven. The purpose of the church, for these folks, is to gather the likeminded together for comfort and solidarity. Or simply gather the likeminded together. The shadow possibility of this, however, is that such congregations become ingrown, inwardly focused clubs that focus only on participants’ perceived needs and wants. If we gather together for the sake of gathering together, without a sense that we have work to do on ourselves or in the world to which our faith sends us, we risk ossifying into a cozy self-congratulatory group of likeminded people that is guarded, suspicious of others, and openly derisive of those who are not like us. Hardly in keeping with the liberal spirit.

There are also plenty who do not want to do or say anything that will offend anyone. Sermons that convict (to use an old Calvinist expression) are abandoned in favor of talks full of information or ideas that most will agree with. Certain words and expressions are informally (or explicitly) banned–you know, like God or sin or death or repentance–effectively blotting out exploration of major religious concepts. And nothing that will challenge anyone should be done or said or imagined. Because that might offend.

It is fine to offer respite to those working the vineyards of liberal political causes and social change movements, but respite cannot be the only purpose of a liberal religious faith community. Gathering together for the sake of creating a congenial environment for oneself is fine, but cannot stop there if we are talking about a church. I believe we need to also be upheld and challenged by the liberal gospel and so compelled by it to  go make a difference for it in the world.

The way I see it, the church exists for gathering, supporting and sending its constituent members. All three. When one of these gestures is lacking, something vital is missing.

Supporting or upholding members of a liberal religious community, as I see it, is in part to sort out not only how we are going to be the best of who we are called to be as individuals, adequately equipping participants for a robust ethical and spiritual life, but also discerning what repercussions our ethics and spirituality must have beyond ourselves. Going deeper ultimately equips us for going farther. The search for truth and meaning produces results which require something of us: how am I going to live my life in the light of this truth and meaning? What demands of me does this make on how my life and my society are to be ordered? Our congregations exist to help deepen our spiritual and ethical strength, renew our commitment to basic liberal principles. And it is not for our own sake only, but for the sake of a world (household, neighborhood, city, nation) that needs what we have to offer.

Not only does a liberal religious community empower and inspire its participants, sending them to the world, but our congregations at their best offer spaces for reflection and contemplation upon one’s experiences of tending the vineyards of a broken and hurting world. Or just living a life. We offer analysis in the light of faith for what we have experienced in our workaday world. Transformation and transcendence can and frequently do occur when a person is engaged in mission outside the confines of the church. The local gathered community offers a context in which to make sense of those experiences. It’s an interpretive circle of action and reflection, not only being sent but also arriving (wounded, inspired, vexed). Making sense out of our experience–making meaning of what we do in our day-to-day lives–is the task of theological reflection and is a discipline of the local church.

Theological reflection among us is hardly the memorization and study of a common catechesis–a body of approved doctrines. Saying we need more theological depth–more soul–in no way means “We all have to believe the same doctrines.” Peacebang puts it this way: “And I want someday for those of us who want to cultivate reverence, humility and soul to stop being categorized and dismissed as pissed off Christians who want to take over the UUA.” Amen!

Not everybody who is a member of a congregation is interested in theological reflection, developing a spiritual practice or pondering the meaning of life. That’s as it should be. These are not for everybody. There are also times in our journeys when we need them more than others. But for those who are looking for something more, a church ought to be offering it.

Signing up for an inoffensive club that has benefits for oneself can’t be the final word in what it means to be a community of faith.

What Are We Being Sent to Do?

I was walking along the sidewalk to the gym in downtown Boston the other day. A young man wearing a dark suit, black tie, and large square name badge approached me. I forget what his opening line was to me as we passed, but I knew that he was on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, or Mormons). I didn’t slow down, but did engage him in conversation. “What do you know about the Mormons?” he asked. I told him that I knew they almost singlehandedly funded Proposition 8 in California, a ballot initiative that revoked the right of same-sex couples to be legally married in the state. Of everything that I know about LDS, this is the thing that most sticks in my craw. Because the church leader demanded it, Mormons across the country saw it as their religious duty to send money to the anti-gay forces in California. As we know, Prop 8 passed.

“I was too young at the time,” my Mormon proselyte shared, which considering it was only four years ago belied how young he actually was. He handed me a business card with a Web address on it. “Would you like to know more about Jesus or Mormonism?” he asked. “Jesus, yes. Mormonism, no,” I said handing it back to him.

I then explained my conviction that homophobia is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. “Well,” he said, his pace slowing as he dropped back, “Jesus believed in standing up for what he believed in.”

I don’t begrudge Unitarian Universalists for not sending our 18-year-olds to the world to convert others to our way of doing religion. But I do wonder: Do religious liberals have any sense of being sent to the world in order to do something? What is our work to do outside of the walls of our church?  Is church a place we visit on Sunday morning that has nothing to do with our Monday morning? Are we formed in some way by an essential message, or core values, that shape all of what we do within and outside the congregation?

Churches that are thriving are not necessarily the ones with conservative theologies or who proselytize strangers. Churches that are thriving are ones that have a strong sense of identity and mission, of knowing who they are and what they do. Declining churches characterize themselves as “a big family;” thriving churches describe themselves as “a moral beacon in our community.” Declining churches wait for people to find them; thriving churches are known in their communities for who they are and what they stand for and they attract people. A church’s mission is so much more than its mission statement: it’s a sense of purpose, focus, and vocation.

The word mission, of course, is rooted in being sent. What are we religious liberals sent to do?

As I reached the door of the gym after my encounter with the young missionary, a breathless woman caught up with me. She had a twinkle in her eye. She said, “I just wanted to tell you that you made my week. I saw you talking with that Mormon kid and the only snippet of your conversation I heard made me laugh out loud. All I heard you say was, ‘Jesus, yes, Mormonism, no.’ That would be a great bumper sticker!” I laughed.

Or a great sermon…