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Sunday, August 07, 2005

Dead or Alive? A sermon prepared for SUUSI by Rev. Alex L. Richardson

Uucgminister -at- bellsouth -dot- net
UU Church of Greensboro, NC
Delivered on July 22, 2005

A wise old one stood before us here in this space last year and started a theme talk with a tale borrowed from Soren Kierkegaard. It was a story about being heard. It went like this:

“One night there was a great mysterious production. Staged in town, everyone
was there. The audience was packed in anticipation of the wondrous entertainment that was coming.

Before the curtain was lifted, a clown in full costume ran out onto the stage, stood in front of the curtain, and shouted “Fire!”

Oh, thought the gathered throng, this is a marvelous thing! A clown shouting fire! Very good, very good. And they applauded.

“Fire!” shouted the clown again. And this time the applause got louder: a clown acting sincere about shouting fire! That’s much better!

Yet a third time, the clown shouted “Fire!” But alas, though the crowd applauded, they didn’t listen, until it was too late.”

The old wise one was my gifted colleauge, the Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr, who, while not a Unitarian Universalist minister – he calls himself a “liberal religionist” , serves our First UU Church of Austin, TX, and also has the great honor of being a member of The Jesus Seminar.

Those of you who were here last year will remember Davidson. His class and theme talk were topics of conversation for all of us throughout the week. This year Davidson was to be with us again to teach a class entitled: Liberal Religion: The Next Phase. Davidson had to cancel this year’s class because of other commitments that ended up intruding on his summer plans. I know that many of you, like me, are dissapointed for his not being here. When I relay a copy of today’s theme talk to him I will be sure and pass along collective greetings from all of us at SUUSI.

This morning I want to remind you of more of what Davidson shared last summer than just a story. The story was meant to illustrate for all of us in the audience last summer just how difficult, perhaps even impossible, it may be to be part of a crowd, or an established faith movement for that matter, especially if you’re seen as “different energy” – Davidson describes him sometimes as “heretical” and “controversial”, a clown of sorts.

My sense of our SUUSI respone to his theme talk last summer was that he had our full attention – no laughter – no thinking him a clown – even if we disagreed with him. Nope, our fellow liberal religionist, the Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr, had our full respect as he delivered him talk which was entitled: Why “Unitarian Universalism” is Dying.

What a title! We listened last sumer, caught like startled creatures in the headlights of a soon-to-be crushing vehicle as Davidson told us:

That we’ve been dying for 43 years, since the merger.
That we lost 12K adult members between 1970-2000; a 7% decline in adult membership while at the same time the US population increased by 37%. Davidson pointing out that if our membership had kept pace with the increase in the general population that we’d be a movement of over 225,000 people now.
Davidson shared much of his take on our history…pointing out that Unitarianism began as what he called a “style” rather than a theological position…reminding us all of how the new scientific understandings of the 19th century debunked much of the old theology and of how in its place we poured ourselves into social movements and political action. We remember Theodore Parker with enthusiasm, Davidson said for instance, because of his energetic involvement in political and social action: abolition, prison reform and women’s rights.

Davidson instructed us last year on how he understands our movement over the last century to have coupled that energy for social politics with what de called a “nominal theism”. Davidson delighted us in sharing of how Emerson had said of the Unitiarianism of his time that it was “corpse-cold”. Corpse-cold, Davidson said, because we lost a religious center as we moved to become a “political and social phenomenon of over-educated people who were becoming marginal in terms of political and financial power.” Davidson went on to say that by the mid-20th century we were a movement of thinkers who left theology for psychology, sociology, anthropology and politics.

And of Universalism - Davidson said that by the end of the 19th century few liberals cared what became of us after death – heaven was not a concern. He also pointed out that the late 19th century introduction of a new type of universalism – the coming together of Western and Eastern theological thought – was separate and apart from the Universalism of our movement’s Christian heritage: which became large irrelevant as most of the surrounding culture adopted our unversalism – even hell was no longer a concern.

And then Davidson said that by mid-20th century, both Unitarianism and Universalism had “mostly exhausted their spirits.” A list of evidence to support that comment followed:

By 1961 neither movement was “viable religion”.
What was significant about the merger was not theological. It was political. And both movements in their politics mirrored the general assumptions of America’s cultural liberals.

There were no beliefs in the new UU. There was no ontology, no distinctive understanding of the human condition, not story to help make our lives more fulfilling and useful to the larger world.

Davidson followed with an explanation of how our intense energies for the various social movements of the 60’s and 70’s distracted us from our lack of a religious core. And then he amused me greatly, poignantly so, by remindin us that we’ve spent a large part of the last several decades saying to one another: “our kids don’t know what to tell their classmates they believe.” Which was as he put it, “disingenious”, because the larger truth was that UU adults and ministers didn’t know what they believed, or what mattered, and so could themselves offer little, if anything, to our UU children.

From that point of bringing focus to the question of whether or not UU’s can articulate what they believe, Davidson spent a good chunk of time busting, as my son might say, on the Principles and Purposes before moving towards closure with the point that all of the world’s major and enduring religions share common ground in their understandings that they way of authentic religion is hard. This is common ground that we all know is not found in a majority of UU opinion. Nope, we have been, as Davidson implied, the church of me and the good times. Not the church of the hard and narrow way.

In copies of his talk, much longer in written form than was spoken, Davidson weaves in and out of these themes of UU not having an articulated belief statement, substituting instead political and social action for the “narrow way”, the hard way, of the world’s major religions.

He closed both in the spoken and paper versions of his talk with what he called “some rays of hope”, pointing out that Channing, Emerson and Paker, whom we remember(while at the same time pointing out that 99% of UU ministry went not remembered), each understood that being religious called them out to actions in their lives on behalf of others. Actions that ended up causing each of them great hardship. Davidson suggested that hope for our faith lives in each of us finding the courage to do likewise.

Davidson added that we can do likewise if we once again choose to become a place of exemplary moral code, so demanding that it would call each of us to what he called the “harder right”, as was the case for Channing, Emerson and Parker. The thought was that by so doing we would draw unto ourselves, through our religious practice, the best of all possible attention and energy from the communties that surround us.

But still Davidson concluded “I do not believe UU can be saved.”

If you were there, you felt it. And many of you, like me, wanted to respond.

I had uncanny opportunity to respond when shortly after Davidson’s talk, one of our SUUSI programming folk came up to me, all extra nice and solicitous, full of charm, and said, “could you possibly do us a big favor and do tomorrow morning’s theme talk? It looks like the person scheduled for tomorrow won’t be able to make it.”

I’d been wowed by Davidson’s talk.
I was even more wowed by this invitation to speak just 20 hours or so into the future but given that I walk around all the time in my own congregation suggesting to the folk there that each of us needs to be able to stand up at any given moment and preach our sermon, especially the one on why we’re UU, I felt I had to accept. And so I spent the rest of the day following Davidson’s talk last summer walking around, talking to myself, and furiously scribbling on the 3x5 cards I always have in pocket.(Show some of the cards from last summer.)

Here’s some of what I wrote down:

YES to Davidson’s take on our dismal membership numbers. God yes. I couldn’t agree with him more. I did my own study of our numbers prior to my mid-life decision to enter ministry and saw much of the same thing Davidson brings to our attention.

I also remember the most recent Pew Survey on Religious Attitudes that I studied. It reported approximately 1.3 million adult Americans identifying as UU – this while we have barely over 150,000 on our membership roles.

Of particular note at SUUSI is the question of who calls themselves a UU. I’m betting that some of the 1 million plus self-identifying UU’s who don’t belong to our congregations, per Pew, are here. Show of hands? Oh yes, look around this room and see just how many call themselves UU but don’t do our churches!

YES to all of Davidson’s sharing about membership numbers…and YES to looking harder at other numbers within our movement. Multiple sources, Mike Durall’s work being a notable example(hold up The Almost Church), show that our financial giving to our faith movement, another number, stays the same on average through all the 1990’s. We UU’s with one of the highest per capita incomes of any identified religious group in the country, giving on average one of the smallest amounts of any identified religious group and keeping our giving the same on average during a decade, the 90’s, in which the cost of doing church or business rose and the average American citizen had one of the highest jumps in personal income, on average, for any period of our lifetimes.

YES, I thought, to Davidson’s assertion that we’d “let go a religious core” mistakenly thinking that one of social or political activism could serve as substitute. Davidson is so right in calling us back to our desperate need to wrestle with the why’s of human existence and the potential of employing the practices of the hard and narrow way towards finding more meaning and purpose in our lives. I spent a good chunk of time that afternoon last summer scribbling on these 3x5’s about how easy it is for me and you in this culture of ours to fall into the cycles of addictive behaviors – work addiction, shopping addiction, amusement addiction, sex addiction, food and substance addiction towards not having to think or feel around the possibilities of giving of ourselves in some hard and narrow way, some way of authentic religion, towards realizing a greater good. YES, Davidson Loehr, we can be too much the he “happy face” people, we UU’s. We do need to learn more of the hard and narrow way. We need to practice the hard and narrow way.

And YES Davidson Loehr, YES, we will draw the admiration of many folk yearning for more meaning in their lives if only we can become communities of moral code demanding of us the harder right. YES, so, so many of us understand that and want to work for it.

YES, I agreed with so much of Davidson’s talk and yet, some of what he shared didn’t feel congruent with my experience of our current UU reality.

Most uncomfortable for me was the bashing, and I use that word with intention and with no implied disrespect for Davidson, the bashing of our Principles and Purposes. Those of you who were here will recall Davidson’s calling them the “Seven Banalities”. To me they’re akin to what our Presby brothers and sisters have going with their Apostle’s Creed - NO offense intended by using that “C” word. In my own mind, creeds and covenants are in some ways synonymous. When we pay them attention, oftentimes reading them in unison with little thought involved, we’re doing our own UU version of what they Presbys do with their Apostle’s Creed. They’re not the end all of what we are. What is much more important, and thus the need for us not to be distracted by any argument for or against the Principles and Purposes, is that we be able to articulate what we believe. Davidson wants that too. And many, many of us are with him AND can do just that.

I, for instance, can say with conviction that:

I believe we are each called to be of service in our lives.
I believe we each need, oh so desperately, authentic religious community to help us discern our call. And also to help support us as we respond to it….and are frightened but it at times.
I believe that in serving a greater good, a common good, I am benefited.
I believe that an authentic religious life is not easy. Using Davidson’s language, it WILL bring about hardness. Its way WILL be narrow. I will need to sacrifice.
I believe many, many, many more UU’s, like me, have belief statements of their own that they can also easily articulate.

There is great common ground across individual UU belief statements. There is hope for us in exploring that great common ground and familiarizing ourselves with it. And becoming oh so comfortable in our articulation of our beliefs.

There is also much life still to be found within our movement around the salvation stories of personal testimony. Davidson says we are without the great myth, the salvation story. I understand us to have the story in thousands of forms…each of us with our own. Each of us with the responsibility for sharing our own…and doing if effectively and with enthusiasm.

Last summer as I was scribbling notes about what to say in response to Davidson, I knew I would have to share my own personal story of salvation. I was born just down the road in Radford, VA. To be at SUUSI is to have my faith draw my life story full circle. I remember thinking last summer that I would have to tell you about my father’s mother who lived in a small town at the base of Christiansburg Mountain, no more than 25 miles from where we now sit. This woman had little use for organized religion. Her’s was a practical life. Making ends meet as a widowed woman raising a son all by herself. My father thrived under her care and then as an adult became very religious. His call to study religion eventually sending him to seminary and prompting him to have many conversations with me and my brothers about all things religious. I remember well the game of hearts on a hot summer evening when I was 15 years old and he told me with great energy, “son you sound just like an agnostic Universalist.” That comment led me to the library and the encyclopedia and my first reading about this faith of ours. I read more in the years that followed before finding way into our church in Charlotte for my first UU worship experience. And then a year later, 1975, 22 years old, I had the good fortune to move to Charleston, SC, and fall into our congregation there. I took my first NEW UU Class in the minister’s apartment overlooking Meeting Street. I’d found the place whre my agnosticis religiosity was welcome. It felt GOOD.

Over twenty years that followed, my career took me from one end of this country to the other. I worshipped in UU churches all over America. My self-identity as a UU stayed constant although no congregation had my constant presence, as had Charleston, until in 1987 I moved to Lancaster, PA, and joined our congregation there. I was in my mid-30’s by then, wrestling with who and what I was called to be, going through mid-life crisis. That congregation in Lancaster welcomed me, gave me anonymity as I initially needed and wanted it, and then lovingly said to me, be a part of what we are. We want you to know us. We want to know you. Let us minister together. The potential of heartfelt religious community were so evident in the way the people of that congregation engaged me.

Just a couple of years after my becoming an active participant in the congregation in Lancaster, Kit Howell was called to be the minister. I need to mention him by name here because Kit was a big SUUSI fan. He told me after I’d come to know him that I had to go to SUUSI if I really wanted to understand this faith. Kit also told me and everyone else in that congregation in Lancaster that ours was the faith “with heart big enough to hold it all.”

But what really “saved” me in our congregation in Lancaster was that the people there pushed and prodded me and everyone else towards deepening our exploration of what it means to be a person of faith, and specifically of Unitarian Universalist faith. Ours was a shared commitment to explore all things religious. At times this work was joyful and easy. And at other times, many other times, this work was frightening.. Through it all, my fellow congregants in Lancaster were there with me, sharing of their encouragement and reassurance that the work we were doing together was valuable. We reassured one another that the risks we took to build a greater good and deeper understanding of the divine was what church was about. We grew in self-understanding and appreciation. We grew in love and appreciation of one another. We grew in our love for our community. We grew in heart.

When a fellow congregant asked me in 1992 if I’d considered ministry, I remember laughing while at the same time feeling a deep sense of congruency for me in the question. My fellow congregant showed me my way.

And in 2001, after two decades in the Northeast, I remember sitting in Baltimore pondering the choices of call to settled ministry and realizing that “Dixie was calling her child home…”, that my faith movement was bringing be back to be where I was raised…the South…to beautiful Greensboro.

And then in Greensboro, good old wonderful Wendell Putney walked up to me almost immediately upon arrival and said, “Are you going to SUUSI this year?” And I said, “No Wendell, I won’t have the time or energy this year.” A year later Wendell asked his question. I gave the same response. Wendell replied, “Rev…that job of yours may be in jeopardy!(Play out the humor…)

Davidson is not the only voice within our movement attempting to forewarn. Michael Durall, whom many of you know, just this past year published his latest book, The Almost Church. In it, Mike not only covers the ground of why our faith movement is showing signs of stagnancy but also explores the criteria for change. He begins by reminding us that we all know that some congregations can change while others cannot.

Change in a religious community, Mike says, is fostered by certain practices. Among them are:

Just showing up. Mike quotes a friend of his in ministry who says you come to church not primarily for the programming but for the thousands of small miracles that occur as we all interact with one another.

Tithing. Mike says we need to consider giving 10% of everything we earn to our churches. (AD LIB AROUND THE NUMBERS). Mike also says that if you’re offended by the Judeo-Christian connection with the concept of tithing then give 11% - there’s absolutely no historoical religious connection with that number!

Having high expectations about membership. Mike says these high expectations are needed for ourselves and our new members. We need to articulate how we understand the characteristics of authentic religious community. We need to exhibit reverence, study and ongoing practice in what we do together as religious communtiy.

And most importantly, Following! Mike says that if we’re going to be strong religious community then we must be highly capable of leadership which ALWAYS requires the ability to FOLLOW. We UU’s must grow our ability to practice what Mike calls “followership.”

Davidson Loehr and Micheal Durall are extraordinary forewarning clowns in our midst now! We’d be fools to ignore their shared wisdom.

I carried back to Greensboro last summer a copy of Davidson’s talk. I preached on it in Greensboro shortly afterwards. Over a 100 copies of that sermon were distributed to my congregation. I’ll preach on it again this fall.

Michael Durall’s book will be going to all leadership in our congregation in Greensboro this fall. I will be doing all I can to affect study of that book. My hope is that you will consider doing likewise.

On one of the 3x5’s last summer I wrote in big letters – LIZZIE. Lizzie, was my father’s mother, my grandmother, the woman who lived at the bottom of Christiansburg Mountain. A woman who I loved very much. Lizzie taught me some things that I want to share with you know that I think have some applicability for the challenges before this faith of ours.

Lizzie gave birth to my father at the age of 35 – very late in life for a woman in 1929. My father was her first child. Passed down through my family is the story of how upon delivering my father, Lizzie turned to her husband Billy and said, “I’ll be damned if I’ll do that again.” And she didn’t. My father is an only child.

Let us vow that we’ll be damned if we’ll not pay critical attention to the numbers of our faith again. Davidson has done us this great service by birthing within this movement a new awareness of just how precarious our existence is. Let us vow, to ourselves and to one another, just as Lizzie did, that we’ll be damned if we’ll ever put ourselves into a place of not paying attention to these vital signs of our movement’s health.

Lizzie also took me in for big chunks of many summers during the first ten years of my life. I’d go and stay at her house and play all day in the creek that ran across her property. She’d call me in to help her do things. And sometimes I’d screw up. I remember, in particular, dropping onto the floor one of her favorite things to cook, pineapple upside-down cake. And Lizzie turned to me in all my failure, the cake all splayed out on the floor at my feet, and said, “Sweetheart, there’s plenty more where that came from. Help Grandma make another one.” And so we did.

If we Unitarian Universalists are to save this faith of ours, to grow it and make it strong, we’re going to have to take some mighty big risks. And some of them will fail, just as surely as I dropped that cake down at the base of Christiansburg Mountain. When we fail, may we each turn to one another and say, “Sweet and wonderful person, there’s plenty more where that came from. Let me help you pick up the pieces and try again.”

Get yourself copies of Davidson’s talk from last year. Buy copies of Michael Durall’s book, The Almost Church. Study them. Talk to one another. Sacrifice. Take some risks. Enjoy your successes. Love one antother through your failures. Grow this faith of ours. Grow it big and strong and capable. AMEN.


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