Squirming on Sunday Mornings
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.