Thursday, November 19, 2009

Holy of Holies

From the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro Newsletter
December 2009


Yes, the hectic pace of the holiday season is upon us. Where, oh, where can we find peace? Where can we find the Divine?

Poet Anne Sexton went looking for the Divine and wrote the poem quoted below about that experience.


Ms. Sexton went out looking for the gods.
She began looking in the sky
—expecting a large white angel with a blue crotch.

No one.

She looked next in all the learned books
and the print spat back at her.

No one

She made a pilgrimage to the great poet
and he belched in her face.

No one.

She prayed in all the churches of the world
and learned a great deal about culture.

No one.

She went to the Atlantic, the Pacific, for surely God...

No one.

She went to the Buddha, the Brahma, the Pyramids
and found immense postcards.

No one.

Then she journeyed back to her own house
and the gods of the world were shut in the lavatory.

At last!
she cried out,
and locked the door.

This poem was quoted by one of the speakers at the ministers’ conference that I attended recently and I immediately connected. Ah, yes, I know the place. The gods of the bathroom are very real to me. Here, and sometimes, only here, can one find solace, privacy, and peace, among the soap and toothpaste and toiletries. And there is even a throne to sit upon for meditation.

I became a Unitarian Universalist convert in this holy room. You see, I spent most of my life in the Southern Baptist church, but began questioning their beliefs in my early teens. I continued my spiritual exploration in adulthood, and rationalized that Southern Baptists lifted up the “Priesthood of the Believer,” so I could still be a Baptist and seek my own interpretations of the Divine. But when the conservatives took over the denomination in 1979, it became especially difficult; and I no longer felt that I could openly share my feelings and beliefs, not even with my husband who was a deacon in the church. When I saw a program in 1990 about Unitarian Universalism on television, I ordered the materials, hoping they would be delivered in a plain brown rapper. When the package arrived, I retrieved them from the mailbox – and took them – where? – to the bathroom of course. I hid them in a drawer under the “feminine products” along with my other contraband literature. It was here that I studied Unitarian Universalism and began to embrace this liberating faith.

Two decades later, as a Unitarian Universalist minister (with a new UU husband to boot), I no longer have the need to hide what I read in the bathroom drawer. But this room is still a very holy place to me. I especially love taking baths – soaking in the warm water, and smelling the soap. Here in this special “Holy of Holies,” I sing praise songs to Sexton’s "gods of the laboratory" and listen to their sweet refrain.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Come, Come, Whoever You Are...

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro

Rev. Jane Page

November 8, 2009

About a week and a half ago, I sent an email to those members and friends who attend here regularly. And I asked for you all to respond to a question giving me a word or phrase (like agnostic, Buddhist, Christian, pantheist, etc.) that might describe your theology or world view. Here are three results of that little study.

1st: Only 18 people responded to my request to share something of your theological identity or worldview to help me with this sermon. Now that low response in itself tells me something I think. I’m still trying to be careful, though, about the conclusions I could draw from the fact that this response was low.

2nd: Only two of the responses just listed a word or words for their identity. Most folks responded with a narrative explanation. And usually any identification words – like agnostic for example – were accompanied with other adjectives or narrative descriptors.

3rd: In my attempts to categorize the responses, I found that a majority of those responding would fall into a group that I might refer to as “Rational Worldviews.” In fact that’s where I placed 11 of the 18 responses. There were three folks whose descriptions might be categorized as “earth –centered” and the remaining four were what I guess I would term “other.”

Now I use the term “rational” because that term is often found in the literature itself for identity labels like agnostic, naturalist, humanist, scientific, and more – not as a category that would deem others necessarily as irrational. I don’t know that these responses necessarily tell us anything about this congregation. It MAY tell us who in our congregation is more likely to identify their world view – especially to Jane Page, who tends to lean in a rational direction herself.

Of course I’m not going to try to paint a picture of the theological diversity of our congregation based on this small number. I know better. However, I’m glad that I made the request. It, indeed, HAS given me a better understanding of 16 of you – for only two of those responding used the anonymous option via survey monkey. And I believe it was a great exercise for those of you who responded. Many of the responses were so profound and thick that I was very tempted to spend part of this sermon quoting them. But then I was afraid that folks would turn that into a guessing game and try to figure out who said it – and I promised to keep responses confidential. I do believe that contemplating our theology or worldview is a good thing for us to do – not just because it’s interesting, but because it can help us frame how we respond morally and ethically. So this process – and perhaps the lack of response – has motivated me to make sure we offer a “Building Your Own Theology” class soon – perhaps starting in January.

Although I don’t know how our congregation might really look on the theological pie chart, I do know that we are diverse – like most UU congregations. An internal study was done over a decade ago by our association that included over 8000 respondents. That survey included a question asking participants to select a single theological label to describe themselves. And unlike my open-ended question, the choices were provided for them. Here’s the breakdown: Humanist (46.1%), earth/ nature centered (19%), theist (13%), Christian (9.5%), mystic (6.7%), Buddhist (3.6%), Jewish (1.3%), and less than 1% for Hindu, Muslim, and other identified labels. However 13% chose the category of OTHER.

Another UUA study of congregational ministers or presidents was done in 2005 that asked them to check the primary theological perspectives of their congregants (and they could check more than one). And here are these results:

Ninety one percent of these congregational leaders checked Humanist as one of their choices. The second highest choice was Earth-centered with 59%, followed by Theist at 55%, Christian at 39%, Mystic at 28%, Buddhist at 27%, Jewish at 25%, and Other at 12%. Now, you understand that these leaders were not saying that, for example, 25% of the congregants identified as Jewish. It’s just that 25% of the leaders included a check by “Jewish” as one of possibly several primary theological perspectives in their congregations.

These UUA survey findings make me think that perhaps my little survey may be reflective of these other findings and that a majority of our folks might line up in something akin to the Humanist camp. Now I don’t know that this is really the case – but even if it IS the case, that doesn’t mean that we define ourselves as a congregation in these terms. There are some congregations who do just that – because they are in larger cities where UU’s have a choice. For example, when Greg and I were in Washington, we attended one event at a UU church that identified as a Christian Congregation. And near Atlanta, there is one congregation that identifies as humanist. But we, here in Statesboro, are a congregation with diverse theologies and worldviews – and frankly, that is one thing that appeals to me. However, some of my readings recently have affirmed what I already know – that this theological diversity can be a challenge in many ways.

Michael Durall is a UUA congregational consultant and author of The Almost Church which I shared about on August 27 2006 from this pulpit -- and now this little book called The Almost Church Revitalized. This little book was so motivating to me that I purchased copies for all of our board members to read – and we’ve been sharing together about this book in special meetings this past month. When we complete our own study, we’ll put these books in our lending library for the rest of you – or you can order your own. In any case, I don’t normally just read something from a book to you -- but I’m going to read half of a page from this little book that relates to this subject of theological diversity. Durall states:

In my experience as a parish consultant, I find that UU congregations possess a limited capacity for systemic change. This occurs, in large part, because of a diverse theology and various factions that exist within the membership. For example, proposed changes in worship or music run a high risk of being opposed by various combinations of theists, deists, humanists, atheists, agnostics, pagans, people of different generations, and the ubiquitous vocal minority that seems to exist in all UU congregations.

Attempts to make changes in congregational life reveal that the more diverse the theology, the greater the likelihood of internal dissent. Diversity it the ultimate UU dogma, but the emphasis on “all voices being heard” creates congregations whose dominant attributes are maintaining harmony and keeping various factions content. Fear of controversy can paralyze a congregation, ensuring that it maintains existing habits and ways.

I am familiar with numerous UU congregations whose clergy and board members literally live in fear of displeasing various segments of the congregation. But maintaining harmony, according to Congregational ministry Anthony Robinson, “Is often an inability to deal with the tough questions or to be honest with one another.”

UU congregations offer people of all beliefs a place at the table. This is a unique strength. However, being seated at the table cannot be the culmination of congregational life. The culture of, “We are here and we are diverse,” is not enough.

Now, I know as a minister that I am constantly trying not to offend. But that’s pretty tough to do with a group like this. One of our board members got on to me about my feeling the need to WARN you all when I might talk about something that offends you – like when I put– “God, Sex, and Politics” – up front as my last sermon topic, so folks would know that I’d be talking about these topics that are sometimes -- to some folks – offensive. She said – “You have freedom of the pulpit. Folks should come here expecting that they might be offended by what you say.” It’s like that story that I told when I first became your minister – about the man and his son and the donkey trying to please everyone they met along the way regarding who should ride and who should walk -- and ending up with their ass on their shoulders.

I also know that the choir members have experienced this to in their efforts to select songs that will not offend. You know the old joke about why Unitarian Universalists are such poor singers. They are reading ahead to see if they agree with the words. Actually, I think we’ve made some progress on some of these issues – especially the music. I do think that folks here now understand they don’t have to agree with all the words to appreciate the music and the message of love behind it – regardless of the theology expressed.

Our UU Associational leaders have realized these concerns related to our diversity and challenged our congregations to explore this further. Our association has something called the Commission on Appraisal – which was first formed by the Unitarian branch of our movement back in 1934. This commission is charged with studying various aspects of our movement and making a report every four or five years. Their 2005 report was entitled, Engaging Our Theological Roots.

In this report, the commission encourages us as congregations to focus directly on some of the areas that some may see as problematic in our diversity. One of these areas is Our Christian Roots.

They report:

Both the Unitarian and the Universalist national organizations were Christian at the time of consolidation, although this seems to have been forgotten or ignored in some parts of the denomination. In the intervening forty-two years, there has been a dramatic shift. Today most UUs, if asked, “Are you Christian?” would respond with something between “Well, not really” and “Hell, no!” Though there are many UU Christians, they have become a minority within the denomination. In fact, UUs seem almost proud of the way they have abandoned their roots. “We are not Christian,” some say perhaps implying that they are better than Christian. … Unitarian Universalists need to make peace with their heritage.

We are not suggesting, as some might, that Unitarian Universalism should become a Christian denomination again. That would not be remotely practical, even if it were desirable. But UUs should do a better job of remembering the tradition from which they came, and even be grateful to it.

Another problematic issue that the Commission raises is EXOTICISM—and this may offend some of you – and is actually a little offensive to me – but here goes.

They state:

(The) undercurrent of anti-Christianity is reinforced by cultural sentiments among the liberal intellectuals Unitarian Universalism tends to attract that Christianity is passé. .. It’s not “in.” What is “in,” and also unobjectionable (from the standpoint of many unreconciled former Christians), is anything Eastern or “earthy” in nature. Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American spirituality and pagan earth-centered religions have been identified as trendy, cool, and acceptable among UUs.

The problem with this is that the fashionability of these “exotic” religions is frequently defined in opposition to Christianity. The exotic religions are prima facie given great latitude and not always critically examined, while any use of Christian sources in UU churches is minutely scrutinized….

This exotic fashionability of non-Judeo-Christian sources is something that the UU movement has not adequately examined but needs to. There is a colonialist attitude inherent in the way UUs, made up predominantly of whites, seems to pick and choose what they want from religions that have traditionally belonged to ethnic groups different from the majority UU demographic. It seems like an unspoken assumption that UUs, as members of a predominantly white denomination, can take what we find appealing from the religions of Native Americans, East Asians, South Asians, and others without any regard for the context or the history of the symbols, beliefs, and practices that we are hoping to co-opt. OUCH!

This concern about cultural misappropriation has come to light many times at our General Assemblies in the past few years and it’s raised my consciousness considerably. For example, the last time November 1 fell on a Sunday – that would be 2001 – I had just started seminary and was leading some of the services here occasionally. And I thought it would be interesting for us to do like the Mexicans do and have a celebration of the Day of the Dead. So I researched, planned the service myself, set up an altar based on pictures I had seen – and found a Mariachi Band to come play for us. We had, I think, a meaningful service and a great time. But were we guilty of cultural misappropriation?

This time we did it differently. From the very beginning we involved folks who had emigrated from Mexico and had a true understanding of this tradition, which actually comes from their indigenous pre-Christian roots. They even helped us present a service the Sunday BEFORE the actual Day of the Dead so that we could put the celebration more within the context of their culture. And folks from Voces Unidas came and put up the altar. And they were partners with us in this service. We probably still made some mistakes – but we are trying.

Now there are some who maintain that we should find a CORE for our beliefs. I have a colleague who has been trying to identify our theological core for some time now. I don’t think it’s going to happen – nor do I believe it necessarily needs to happen. Instead, I concur with those who would draw our attention to the metaphor we use in our 7th principle. In that principle, we indicate we affirm a respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. There are religious systems which are more like a planetary system – in which a large body is in the center and the gravity of that large body is what holds all of the moons and satellites in place revolving around it. But what is in the center of a web. My mom called took me out in her yard the other day to see a beautiful spider web that had formed between some trees. It was huge and it was glistening in the sun. Actually it looked kind of magical. In the very center, of course, was a hole- H-O-L-E. It was empty. Yet the web with its many strings was a part of a whole – W-H-O-L-E – all interconnected around—not a solid core symbolizing perhaps god or humanity – but an opening, a void, from which intricate aspects of reality emerge. Can the seventh principle be the common ground for us? Perhaps.

In any case, I do not believe that our congregation will become paralyzed by our theological diversity. I believe that we are ready to do as Michael Durall has suggested – and allow our diversity to serve as a platform by which people of dissimilar beliefs unite in common cause for a greater purpose.

Yes, may our faith be diverse but deep – connected in a sacred web of love for one another and a desire to make this world a better and more loving place for all.


Come, come whoever you are – wanderers, worshippers, lovers of leaving. Ours is no caravan of despair. Come, yet, again come!

Amen and Blessed Be!