Sunday, January 29, 2006

Squirming on Sunday Mornings

ChaliceChick is hosting a really epic conversation about how to fix the UUA over at her blog, and when I'm done with this bout of jet lag I intend to read every posting and every comment, 'cause it's fascinating stuff.

Tonight I just read this little bit about the old "too much politics" issue among us:

I heartily agree that there's too much politics in our worship services, a fact which CSO says keeps him out of church (aside from the fact that he's not a big institutionalist in the first place). And I know that Republicans have often been made to feel unwelcome among us.

But there's something here that no one is saying and it's beginning to smell like an elephant in the living room, and that is that because there's so little understanding of what Unitarian Universalist worship should be among us -- or perhaps so little consensus -- what could (or perhaps should) be a deep encounter with moral issues in our worship services winds up not so much a deep encounter but a partisan tirade. I've talked about this a lot but here it is again, I guess.

UUs aren't the only religious group possessing a glorious and complex theological tradition that gets ignored or trotted out in convenient sound bites during partisan sermons, of course. Conservative Christians cheapen their own theological traditions in the same way, hammering home the same exclusionary messages from their pulpits and propping them up with the same, tired Biblical passages and exegeses of those passages week after week. We could all be doing better.

When Chalice Chick says that we make Republicans feel unwelcome by demonizing their political commitments, I want to say, "yes... but." Yes, but although it's wrong to attack Republicans wholesale, it's not at all wrong for liberal religionists to preach a firm and clear message about justice, God's love, and other issues of ultimate meaning, and to use real life political issues as examples of how those values are or are not being promoted in the public realm. If people wind up squirming on Sunday mornings because their personal political commitments have not squared with the ideals of justice, love and peace taught by our liberal tradition, that's okay. That's not the same as being insulted. That's having your conscience pricked, and it should be happening for all of us all the time in our worship services. It should be happening from the moment we gather and light the chalice and make some communal expression of reconciliation and hope; that return us to the "moment of high resolve," as Howard Thurman so beautifully put it.

As far as the overly-political sermon goes, though, the only way to avoid speaking to issues of social conscience without descending into partisan haranagues is to fearlessly and unapologetically center ourselves in our theological tradition. One of the reasons the average seeker ends up thinking we're not very religious is because our preachers use the NY Times to say what is all there in the pages of the Bible -- in the OT and the NT, baby. Which, of course, I'm not allowed to say. I mean, I love Jonathan Kozol a lot, but it would be so great if I could quote him AND Jesus on occasion. Or how about Maimonedes? Again, I am thinking of the average seeker who would like to have some help getting how this groovy Sunday experience is a religious gathering.

Sure, as a preacher I can find some philosopher or social theorist to back up my claim that pre-emptive war is a moral disgrace, but then George Bush will bring out the big God-guns and fan the flames of hellfire and damnation about infidels, and my argument will seem pretty milquetoast by comparison. I'm a UU, though,* so I'm not allowed to bring on my own hellfire and damnation about how we're all one people under God -- I've got to keep it reasonable and intellectual and non-theistic so as not to seem anything like the crazy uber-conservatives -- so again, I'll be carefully citing some 20th century theorist while my conservative evangelical neighbor down the street gets to use the wildly gripping language of the psalms to give voice to his people's anguish and desire for vengeance and domination.

So the seeker comes to the UU church and although she thinks she doesn't want anything like that old Southern Baptist experience she came from, she just doesn't feel from Annie Dillard and George Lakoff and Amitai Ezioni the same visceral punch she got from the ancient cadences of St. Paul. I wanted a new church that felt as powerful as my old church but for better reasons, she thinks, but I'm definitely not going to find it here.

This isn't to say that UU preachers have to rely on the Bible. But we need more passion, more swing, more cadence, more straight shot can you feel it
gathering storm God is listening life is now are you in it or are you half dead get you in the guts musical don't distance yourself uncross your arms set those feet to marching get those hearts to thumping stop quoting and start witnessing to the divine truth that you know you feel but you so carefully avoid claiming experiences in church.

In case I've been totally incoherent (and I'm very jet lagged, so I probably am), my major point here is that we should all feel stung and confronted and corrected in worship services, not for our politics but for our humanity, and for our many sins of commission and ommission. The whole point of growing a congregation of loving, warm, welcoming, supportive, humorous, compassionate and forbearing people is that we build a spiritual edifice strong enough to contain all that sin and guilt, to look at it wisely and bravely together at least every Sunday, and to hold faith for one another (and in one another)that we are nevertheless good and strong enough to get better at the project of being humans, onward and upward, forward through the ages.

*- as Jeff's comment below reminds me to explain, my "I" in this posting isn't about me, PeaceBang, but a hypothetical "I" UU minister or lay worship leader.


Blogger Tricycle Blog said...

PB, I have a sneaking suspicion that if you brought your own quasi-hellfire and damnation about "how we're all one people under God" and preached an impassioned, emotional, and theistic UUism that you'd quickly encounter some objections but over time build a strong church of dedicated, inspired parishioners. But it's just a hunch.


P.S.: Welcome back. Glad you had such a good time.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Thanks, Jeff!
I should always explain that when I speak as a generic UU "I," I am not usually speaking to my own personal reality but for the more typical UU experience. My own congregation, perhaps because of its centuries-long history, is very supportive of a more formal, spiritual worship service and a more religious-than-usual minister.

Blogger chutney said...

Preach it, sister!

Blogger Chalicechick said...

I don't want to totally speak for the CSO, but I suspect that we would be both be at least far more OK with politics-because-it's-based-in-our-theology rather than politics-because-we-say-so now.

The big thing I hate about politics in church is that it so opens the church up for stupid stuff. Clyde Grubbs says on his blog that his minister friends are careful and thoughtful when preaching political things. I believe him. But the people who are NOT careful and thoughtful, or who are so in love with their causes that they don't care, do a lot of damage.

This wouldn't be my personal baliwick if I hadn't seen some presentations from the pulpit that were way across the line. If grounding things in theology were a way to keep the truly nutjob "Let's put on a play about the Patriot Act and call it a sermon" stuff, I could certainly be OK with the rest.


Ps. GREAT post.

Blogger fausto said...

Tricycle says:

I have a sneaking suspicion that if you brought your own quasi-hellfire and damnation about "how we're all one people under God" and preached an impassioned, emotional, and theistic UUism that you'd quickly encounter some objections but over time build a strong church of dedicated, inspired parishioners.

Very true, but I'll go even further -- both further than what Tricycle asserts, and further than PB's own pulpit.

Unless and until we start preaching that message from a lot of UU pulpits rather than only the odd one here or there, we will continue to be a slowly dying, increasingly irrelevant religious community.

And, likewise for the remaining, non-theistic pulpits, unless and until they find a similarly morally grounded and relevant voice that speaks not only to the general condition of society but also to the personal spiritual need of the parishioner.

PB says:

This isn't to say that UU preachers have to rely on the Bible.

Agreed, but I would also offer the balancing observation that just as they needn't rely on it, they needn't deliberately avoid it either, as so many seem to do today. It can be a powerful tool in the right hands, and I don't think it's any coincidence that in the era when we did rely primarily on the Bible, we were generally a lot more influential in society and effective in spreading what we now call our "principles" than we are today. Most of our principles today are merely a restatement of the same principles that yesterday our predecessors teased out of the Bible. There's no need to set aside one of the truest, strongest arrows in our quiver.

She also says:

we should all feel stung and confronted and corrected in worship services, not for our politics but for our humanity, and for our many sins of commission and ommission.

Exactly, and this is exactly what is missing from many UU political sermons and positions statements. All too often they aren't about redoubling our own commitment and correcting our own shortcomings, but about condemning and correcting the moral failures of somebody else in the broader society. In effect we're ministering to other people who don't want to hear from us, when we should be ministering to ourselves.

In the old Red Hymnal, there are more than a dozen orders of service, including a very humbling general confession, specifically acknowledging our sins of comission and ommission. This is the kind of language we never use in our sevices any more, but perhaps we should, at least in any service where the preacher sees fit to lament the shortcomings of others. As a very wise man once asked, "How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is a log in your own eye?"

Blogger Tricycle Blog said...

Ha, it's funny to get called "Tricycle," I guess that's what Blogger does to me since PB's got some spam protection turned on and I deleted Transient and Permanent. Tricycle is the Buddhist magazine whose blog I still maintain, definately not my screenname. . .

PB, glad to hear that your own church bucks the trend you're decrying in your post. I've belonged to other congregations that do too. Yet I know the opposite isn't just a stereotype--I've been to a number of UU congregations who really do seem defensive, confused, and maybe even spiritually-dead (an awful charge, one I hesitate to even mention as speculation).

Fausto: even though I was taught Bible in Sunday School and given a Bible at my 5th grade UU graduation, I would hesitate to speak from it in the pulpit as a guest lay preacher. I just don't feel a sense of ownership toward it, it feels like I'm coopting someone else's tradition (specifically, Christianity). I wouldn't be much more comfortable doing that than coopting, say, Native American spiritual ways. Part of being UU to me means respecting other people's ways and texts enough not to cherry-pick from them with a sense of entitlement. Since I'm not Christian and was never made to feel I was, Christianity seems like a foreign faith and the Bible seems like a part of my general religio-cultural heritage but not something I should speak from as an insider. I guess I'm ceeding the Bible to conservative Christians to a certain extent, but to me I feel like I'm also ceeding it to liberal Christians (UUs included) in an attempt not to rifle through their sacred text for my own, non-Christian, purposes.

Jeff Wilson (guess I need to sign my name since it comes up Tricycle).

Blogger fausto said...

I agree with you, Jeff, that someone who doesn't follow or value the Bible shouldn't attempt to preach from it. And I did say above that our non-theistic pulpits need to find a similarly morally grounded voice, drawing expressly from whatever moral grounding is most appropriate for them. It's the general lack of groundedness that makes our political voice seem shrill and shallow, not necessarily our specific lack of Biblical prooftexts.

As for myself, I'm quite comfortable with the Bible, and I think given the history of our denomination as well as the theological orientation of lots of folks both inside and outside our walls, those of us who find value in it shouldn't feel inhibited from preaching it confidently. I don't think we're so much "coopting someone else's tradition" when we do so as reclaiming our own. As a denom with our roots firmly in Protestantism, the Bible is our original religious source, and it remains a perfectly valid one for us today even though we have also adopted others.

Blogger Jess said...

Damn skippy.

Thanks for this.

And welcome home!

Blogger Happy Cindy said...

WOW. that was awesome.

Ok, this is very simple...
Who are you in real life, and why aren't we friends?????


Blogger Chalicechick said...

Linguist Friend's church, which some days I suspect might be the worst in the land, had a speaker on Chinese Medicine who ended up marketing his own skills at Chinese Medicine at the send of his sermon.

Something must be done.


Blogger PeaceBang said...

Oh wow. Oh wow. That's definitely one for the UU Hall of Shame. Not quite as bad as when a guest preacher included a pornographic poem with lots of blue language in a church I served, but almost. This is why I am adding a responsibility for worship clause to my Letter of Agreement: to make it damn clear that when that Chinese medicine guy makes his pitch, the minister has to accept ultimate responsibility for it.

Blogger Tricycle Blog said...

Yeah right, as if you don't go to church for porn and alternative health therapies. What kinda UU are you?


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