From Tolerance to Hospitality

At a congregational board retreat at the beginning of a church year one year, we began to ask questions about mission.

To spark answers to the question of what our purpose is, we considered the question, “What is this congregation’s saving message?”

A number of themes emerged consistently, one of them being the notion that we model a way of holding together in unity a diversity of theological and philosophical perspectives. Our historic testimony – part of our saving message to the world – has been religious toleration, creating understanding and respect in civil society for a variety of religious beliefs and for none. The language that many Unitarians grew up with, including some on this board, was of religious tolerance.

But before I could write down, “Tolerance” with my marker onto the page in front of the group, a participant spoke up.

“You know, I don’t want to be tolerated.”

Tolerance, indeed, implies that there is something distasteful about another and we are holding our noses and allowing them to remain in our presence. Like tolerating loud noise or a foul smell because it can’t be avoided.

The historian Earl Morse Wilbur identified the three foundational principles of Unitarianism as being freedom, reason and tolerance. This describes our history, but not our present moment and in these opening decades of the twenty-first century, these basic principles of religious liberalism are, without really being superseded, transforming.

Tolerance, for example, is no longer adequate for our increasingly multicultural and interfaith context. It is not helping our divided body politic. What is needed today is not simply tolerance for difference, but rather authentic engagement across our differences.

No longer holding our nose and allowing you to stay here, but rather, curiosity and conversation with those who are different from us. Who are you and how do you see the world? Asking and discovering, in an attitude of openness, does not mean acceptance necessarily of another’s views. But it builds a bridge, and makes connection and communication possible.

There have been times when I, and other LGBT people I know, have “come out” to others in our faith communities and were told, “It doesn’t matter that you’re gay” (or lesbian or bi or trans).

Well… it matters to me!

I’ve also been told by well meaning people that it makes no difference that I’m Arab. “You can hardly tell,” they say, thinking they’ve complimented me.

Well…it makes a difference to me!

It is a well-meaning, liberal response that actually closes down dialogue. By saying, You’re no different from me, the real and actual difference is not acknowledged, the fullness of that person’s rich experience and humanity remains shut off.

The same happens across differences of ability and disability, language, culture, race, theology, class, nationality, gender.

Pretending those differences aren’t there isn’t helpful. To actually engage one another, we’d need to give up the well-intended but pernicious fictions of “colour blindness” and “aren’t we all the same.”

A video going round on my social media recently exhorts viewers to give up “labels” saying that our “true” identities are some kind of interior quintessence and not our outward appearances, including our bodies. This laudable plea to see the humanity in one another, rather than the material conditions that separate us, falls into this same sort of thinking.

Those material conditions are real and have real consequences in our real lives. And those identities are real and meaningful, even if socially constructed. It’s delusional to pretend otherwise. Erasing people’s identities is, to say the least, problematic.

I suggest that hospitality is what is needed today, the willingness to engage with one different from or strange to us, the practice of active engagement across the divisions and barriers that separate us. Hospitality involves acknowledging and affirming differences in another as we commit to understanding and accepting them fully as they are.

Hospitality is the practice of curiosity and openness, a spirit of inquiry into another’s life and experience. Hospitality is the practice of taking a risk—of asking a question, for example, even if it might be insensitive.

We need more than ever to open our door and welcome in the one who we consider one of “them.” Because in the transformational guest-host conversation that is the heart of hospitality, there is mutual exchange of distrust and trust, sincerity and reticence, giving and receiving out of which is born new understanding, new insight and new relationship.

I don’t want to be tolerated. I refuse to be erased. I want to be listened to, understood, taken seriously, affirmed and maybe even accepted – for who I actually am. These are the fruits of hospitality, a virtue that I daresay needs to become more central to who we are and what we do.

 

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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.

Liberal Religion: Temporary Stop or Permanent Home?

Observers of the religious landscape are noticing that it’s not just liberal and mainline denominations that are declining in membership.

After the heyday of organized religion in the post-World War Two era in North America, it was a truism that the liberal and mainline churches were bleeding members. Everybody talked about mainline decline and evangelical ascendency. Liberalism was out and conservatism was in. We were all assured that fundamentalist religion was the way of the future.

Now the religious conservatives are losing members.

And the category of “Nones” is growing exponentially. The “Nones” are so called because that’s how they respond to the survey question of what their religious affiliation is. People are leaving organized religion in droves. (This, we are now being assured, is the way of the future).

Our losses were bigger and came earlier, I believe, because religious liberals were closer in spirit and outlook to the secularity of no religion at all. And if that’s where North Americans are moving to—no religion at all—then we’re already halfway there.

When I first became a Unitarian Universalist, more than twenty-five years ago now, my minister at the time described the religion as a spiritual vestibule. It was a place between. Many were on their way in from the secular world and going to some place more orthodox. Others were on the way out from some place more orthodox to a completely non-religious place.

We were a way station, as the old joke goes, between the Methodist church and the golf course.

I really didn’t like this characterization of my newfound faith at all! I loved my new church and everything that it stood for. Didn’t we have a compelling message and way that were worth being committed to? Why would anybody leave? I wasn’t going anywhere. If only more people knew about us, we would swell our ranks.

All these years later, I’m much less sanguine.

We talk a lot about the spiritual journey, but sometimes forget that being on a journey implies movement. People grow and change, and oftentimes what they initially found compelling in their faith community no longer speaks to their condition. And so they move on. Sometimes they need to leave our congregations for pastures that really are greener from their new and evolving perspective.

In the congregations I have served, I’ve made it my practice to have a pastoral visit with those who are withdrawing their membership. Sometimes these are folks we hadn’t seen in a while who, when asked, want to be dropped from the rolls. Other times, these are more or less active members who had made some kind of decision. Non-member attenders are a little more slippery and harder to track.

Sometimes what they needed was a visit from the minister to voice some complaint, the color of the new rug in the parlor or the new order of service or to describe some interpersonal spat. After getting it off their chest with a sympathetic listener, we would frequently see them at worship the next week.

Yet at other times, folks leaving the church would share that they were seeking something deeper and richer for their spiritual lives.

These friends had spent time sojourning with us, discovering and discerning what fed their soul. This is something we do well, explore. We offer an open space in which to examine spiritual, religious and moral traditions without prejudice.

Many, having come from conservative Christianity, discover with us for the first time that there are liberal Christian alternatives. And, yes, then leave for those alternatives. I’ve seen this as well with UUs of Jewish heritage.

Over time, these friends realized that they were more nourished by their participation in yoga retreats or a Buddhist sangha or neo-Pagan ritual or Christian worship and with sadness, but without regret, it was time to move on. They were grateful to their liberal religious community for helping them find their way.

Instead of making “lifelong UUs” out of everyone who comes our way, what if we saw our mission as giving people the gift of their most authentic spiritual self?

What if we understood the sojourn, the journeying with us for a while, as part of our ministry? What if one of our great purposes as Unitarian Universalist faith communities was to help people discern their spiritual path? And if that means letting them go, doing so graciously?

And yet…

When I make these visits, I ask, “What was missing for you in your experience of this congregation?” The almost unanimous reply is: spirituality. When I explore this with them, it turns out this means a sense of depth or purpose other than mere community. Sometimes this means an aesthetic component to corporate worship. Sometimes it means prayer. Sometimes what’s missing is God or God-talk. “Spirituality,” they answer, as a kind of shorthand for all of this.

Diana Butler Bass suggests there is a grassroots revival and renewal of liberal Christianity that has been going on unobserved. Liberal Christians, she says, have had longer to figure out what faith and practice is going to look like for them in the twenty-first century.

“Some local congregations are growing,” says Bass, “having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation.”

The great awakening that she describes in her recent book is an open, spiritually vital religious movement that crosses religious and denominational lines. It is one that engages basic spiritual disciplines and theological reflection.

The “Nones” are not without spirituality or a desire for a spiritual life. Many of them believe in God. They just don’t believe in religious institutions.

What many are looking for (or have given up looking for) is a faith community that has spiritual depth and maturity, without dogma or rigidity. Many are looking for God or God-talk that is not doctrinaire but rather open ended.

Reading Bass’s book has given me pause. Would our local congregations experience growth if we lived into our own description of what we say we are and were unabashedly religious embodiments of the liberal spirit?

What would have to change if we understood our mission and ministry as giving people the gift of their most authentic spiritual self? What would we have to do differently if one of our great purposes as Unitarian Universalist faith communities was to help people discern their spiritual path?

I’m betting that in the answers we give to these questions are the seeds of flourishing liberal religious communities of the twenty-first century.

The zeitgeist currently seems to feature an interest in–and a longing for–what Unitarian Universalists offer when we are at our best. Can we offer our times and our world our very best?

We could be more than a rest stop on the way to the golf course.