The Unitarian Society of East Brunswick
May 8 2016
Let me begin in gratitude. Gratitude to be with you again. Gratitude for breath. For the presence of my spouse again among you, but not my daughter, who is home in Massachusetts sick. Gratitude this day for those who recognize that mothering is a complex notion far deeper than any Hallmark card or kindly-intended bouquet of flowers. Alongside joy and celebration, recognition and honoring, let us make room for the imperfect, the not yet forgiven, the loss, and hurt, the complicated. Let me speak gratitude for the many teachers I met this week who lent to me pieces of their life stories, who told me of their love of this place: may I honor them, may I honor you. Let gratitude be my guide in both dark and bright times.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote what I would say was last summer’s most poignant read: Between the World and Me. How many of you in the room have read it? A memoir, written as a letter to his 15-year-old son. The context of a Black father speaking to his Black son is not to be divorced from the power of this insight, yet I believe these following words speak to all seeking Beloved Community:
“History is not solely in our hands. And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.”
What did the sermon say last week? Beloved Community is not Beloved Certainty.
Michelle Alexander is a civil rights lawyer and activist. It is due to her intrepid work that the term “the New Jim Crow” is a common phrase, that more of us talk about mass incarceration. Towards the end of last year, she reviewed Coates’ book and expressed unambiguous admiration for all of Coates’ writing, this piece, as well as his previous works. Yet, she finds that there is something missing. She wrote,
And yet I cannot pretend to be entirely satisfied. Like [James] Baldwin, I tend to think we must not ask whether it is possible for a human being or society to become just or moral; we must believe it is possible. Believing in this possibility — no matter how slim — and dedicating oneself to playing a meaningful role in the struggle to make it a reality focuses one’s energy and attention in an unusual way.
Alexander says that she believes Coates’ offerings are still a work in progress.
May this be true because his observations of our shared life, as rigorous and challenging as they are, also are a gift that enriches our collective us immensely.
This tension between seeing things for what they are and what they could be reminds me of wisdom from many sources. Like this, from the Twelve Step movement: fake it ‘til you make it. Or from Pablo Picasso, who said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” Or a lyric from the rock band U2 that turns our rationality on its head: “It has to be believed to be seen.”
“I am learning every day to allow the space between where I am and where I want to be to inspire me and not terrify me.”
Sometimes, the arrival of a new minister seems like the perfect time to step back, to relax, to take a well-deserved rest. There is a temptation to let the pull of kicking back lead to letting some amorphous “them” or “others” do the sometimes tedious (cleaning mouse turds from overlooked corners; disposing of broken furniture left years, sometimes decades, ago), sometimes tense work of congregational life.
If that happy thought is one you are feathering your congregational nest with, please do not call me as your minister. I intend to bring you my gifts of ministry, but I come here with shared ministry in mind. You and me together.
We must believe it is possible. We must believe it into being. This resonates with some of what I read about TUS when I looked through the historical artifacts held at the library at Harvard Divinity School, which has holdings for many of our Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist congregations over the centuries, as well as with materials from your own church historian. I read some of the correspondence between your founders and what was then called the AUA but is now the UUA, including a comment of official acceptance as a Unitarian fellowship in 1956, even though the fellowship’s purpose was “a bit sketchy.”
These materials show the aspiration to meet unmet needs and to meet needs in the process of being articulated. To believe it into being. There was a strong sense of confidently striking out into new territory. A pamphlet from 1963 drumming up support for the construction of this building was entitled, “At the end of the past…where the future begins.” They believed it was possible. They believed and therefore could see something that did not yet exist. These are your forbears. You are their 21st century descendants.
Perhaps you have heard this – read about it in newspapers or in social media, noticed it in the changing landscape of religious life in America: the way we embody congregational life in this country is changing. It certainly doesn’t mean that there stops being an urgent need for a safe place for spiritual sustenance. Still, every other week there is some new report from the Pew Center for Studying Something Related to Religious Life telling us that congregational life is heading for the dumpster.
In my conversations with you all this week, I know that even if you haven’t read these studies, you sense something is changing: you sense TUS’ own manifestations of this larger societal (but not world-wide) dynamic.
There are the Nones, spelled N-o-n-e-s, who, if asked to identify their religious affiliation on a demographic survey, would chose “None,” but many of whom consider themselves spiritual.
There are the demographic patterns of the generations – there are only half as many Generation X (that’s me – typically born between 1965-1980) as there are Boomers in this country (born between 1946-1964). And yes, there is an upswing in the generation after mine – called the Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996. Their overall numbers are similar to the Boomers, but it is among them that the number of Nones is growing bigger with every passing year: Over one third of Millennials fall into the None category, while only half that (17%) of Boomers do (as of 2014 – these numbers come to us from the Pew Research Center and the trends say this is on the increase, not decrease).
So when you wonder why it’s really hard to fill the slots you have for all your committees, it’s not that people aren’t pulling their fair share of the load like in ages past. It’s that there are too many slots given the generational shifts of our times. There are changes in how people understand belonging and membership not just in religious life, but also in civic life. Not to mention that our understanding of an ever-upward economy of growth has reached its edge, begun to show its limitations and falsehoods. So how people belong to a place and how they understand their financial stewardship takes more education and cultivation – it’s not socially or culturally obvious like it once was.
What a fine time to become a minister! What a fine time to cast your lot, as you have done and will continue to do, you fine and glorious people, with this strange and lovely and quirky and powerful thing called congregational life!
Coates said history is not solely in our hands and this is true of the future of congregational life. We cannot know what the future of church looks like. We have some well-informed ideas about what the coming few years, maybe even the next decade or two, could look like — should we choose to adapt. Should we choose to adapt, rather than hold the ground that is shifting beneath our feet, looking only back to what used to work or what worked so well for you when you first came to this place.
What we know is that congregations that have a clear mission – not clear mission statement, but clear mission – cultivate the necessary resilience for the changes that lie ahead. This means being clear about your purpose, enacting it, reflecting upon it, adapting it, then enacting it again: these steps are not about navel gazing, as my father would call it, but are acts of survival.
We know that congregations that demonstrate a clear purpose and place within their larger community – this, too, adds to the resilience that offers up the capacity to navigate the tumultuous waters ahead. The architect who designed this building said he choose the placement of these windows specifically to emphasize the congregation’s need to look inward, to define and refine itself, rather than look outward. So while it is important to know who you are and serve internal needs, this is not enough for survival in the 21st century landscape.
I understand that there has always been an aspiration to open that wall behind this pulpit, to place windows that would face outward, complimenting the architectural design of the inward gaze. So clearly to me from this past week I have spent with you, such a decision and implementation would not solely be for the beauty of the design or the enjoyment on Sunday morning, but would be a statement about who you intend to be. We must believe ourselves into being.
When I was pre-candidate, I asked all the search committees with whom I met, “If your congregation were to magically disappear tomorrow, besides those who attend Sunday services, who would notice?” I have asked it – though not in those specific ways – several times throughout this week to various gathered groups. Let me state that question again, because it’s an important one and it’s one that if you call me as your minister, I will be asking you regularly in our first year together: “If your congregation were to magically disappear tomorrow, besides those who attend Sunday services, who would notice?”
When I met with your search committee during pre-candidating season, their response was the most cohesive and multi-voiced, with everyone chiming in, of those congregations interviewing me as their potential minister. It was the most resonant with my own ministry – which is why I am joyfully here this week with you and hope to be with you for many years to come.
And though this was true, there were gaps – some vagueness, a fuzzy quality that will not serve your congregation’s survival well. Perhaps it is the legacy of that early observation that your founding purpose was “a bit sketchy.” Sometimes the answer was that we take care of one another – no doubt you can hear that inward focus of which the architect over a half century ago spoke. Sometimes it was to mention efforts to transform the world by your care that are largely carried out by one or two individuals, or here and there without a larger cohesive vision, or efforts mostly took place in the past. Sometimes there was talk of the Montessori School, which is definitely one of the unique gifts you offer the community and our denomination. Sometimes the answers were smattered with awkward silence. There is much work to be done to make confident and clear your congregation’s answer to what your purpose in the world is. I affirm that we are collaborators in creation.
In terms of 21st century resilience, we know that congregations who diversify their portfolio strengthen their core of resilience. Not an investment portfolio, though that is likely true, too. It means that congregations must have many ways of gathering together, not just on Sunday mornings, but at other times, in other ways. I understand that you have, during your interim period, moved to holding meetings and activities throughout the week, not just on Sundays. That is good. This also means that church – congregational life, whatever you call it – needs to happen both in person and in the virtual world to be of the 21st century.
Should you call me as your minister, I will ask you to walk further into the virtual world. Continue to develop a comprehensive web site. Increase your presence on Facebook as part of the public face of who TUS is. Get the audio recordings of sermons available for the wider world to listen to right away – this is one of the primary ways that people do “church shopping” now, spending often up to a year getting to know a congregation on the internet before actually ever visiting in person.
Should you call me as your minister, I will ask us to re-imagine and rebuild the Religious Education program. I have heard from so many of you that this is how you entered this place and stayed: it met the needs of raising your children. In a pamphlet from the early 1970s (with fonts that come right out of The Electric Company), you wrote
During our development one of our primary concerns has been the religious education of our young people. We are constantly seeking better methods of achieving an understanding of how people have dealt with, and are dealing with, the universal questions of religion. These methods must be suited to each child’s needs and interests. We are intent on helping our young people grow toward emotional and intellectual maturity so as to choose for themselves a religious faith rooted in the best available knowledge of our surroundings, a faith relevant to their everyday lives. This is one of our major commitments.
There are opportunities and potentials given that your interim Director of Religious Education leaves mid August.
What was unexpectedly exciting about this is that there are new and new-ish families with young children who made sure I knew last Sunday that they are here, that they are ready to co-create the next iteration of the religious education program of this place. They shared with me the beginnings of their vision and though it’s clear to me they have moxy, TUS needs a balance of new eyes and those with deep roots here to make it happen. Believing it into being.
Should you call me as your minister, I will ask us to explore Full Week Faith, a project of the Fahs Collaborative, lighting the path of how we can make congregational life expand to meet modern needs in a way that Sunday mornings are essential, but not sufficient. We must believe it is possible. We are collaborators in creation.
We are stepping into new unknown territory together. Remember that thing I kept saying last Sunday? Beloved Community is not Beloved Certainty. Yes, that’s us: stepping into the unknown together, not knowing each other but having a really good feeling; not knowing how congregational and religious life will meet modern times and shifting cultural expectations, but willing to believe in it so that we can see it.
This is us. This is TUS. This is our chance. Given the challenges we face and the potential I see and sense within you, if we pay attention, if we aspire to believe then we can do as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin told us: wade through the water whether it’s cold or warm. Let us do this together as collaborators in creation.