Monday, January 31, 2011

Being Missionaries, or "What if ..."

I know exactly when I took the red pill.

I was in preaching class with one of my favorite professors and just chatting, he brought up the missional church movement. He explained that what they wanted to do was be missionaries, but rather than being missionaries in Africa or Central Europe, they wanted to be missionaries right in their own town.

And reality, as I had known it, crackled into a million pieces; my vision unfocused and I held on to the table for fear of falling off my chair and into a wormhole. He explained further and reality came back into focus, but a different reality than had been there before.

What if?

I profoundly believe in liberal religion in general, and Unitarian Universalism specifically. I believe the world would be a better place if we added a hundred, two hundred UU churches, all working on creating the Beloved Community. And creating the Beloved Community not within their church walls, but outside it, in their greater community. Doing guerrilla gardening and mentoring at the local elementary school, serving up a meal on Sunday for church members and the neighborhood. Focusing not on how many members in the church, but how many they serve.

What if?

Being a missionary, starting up a new church in the poorer part of town ... how is that more impossible than going to another country where you don't even speak the language, and learning a new culture, in order to better the people and save their souls?

I have a different opinion about saving souls. Mine is found in "Shalom," a word translated to mean "peace," but which is so much more. It is peace, rightness, and wholeness; it is both personal and communal.

What if?

What if you had a new church who knew from the get-go, that this would be their focus? That "church" was not where you met, "church" was who you are?

And what if these people were all willing to be missionaries?  All week long, in their own spheres of influence, they would pursue mission. At work, at the pub, on the softball field or Mommy and me group, they would actively try to spread their values, seeing themselves as missionaries. And would come together to work the mission field where their church was located.

And what if you had a large, established church, who decided that "missions" was not just something for fundamentalist Christians, but was instead a vital part of their mission, who supported sending a mission ... but rather than to Guatemala, to the other side of the railroad tracks?

And what if you focused on the indigenous culture in which you planted the mission, rather than trying to turn the "savages" into what goes for "UU Culture" these days?

What if.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

God, Doubt, Authenticity, and Foolishness

There is a saying about "It is better to be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

We nod sagely at that, not stopping to think ... Oh, then that means no one would talk. Or share ideas. And really, isn't that rooted in fear?

So I say, tish tosh to that, and prefer Emerson's words, "Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day."

In one of my seminary classes, the professor talked about the ambiguity in the Bible, and the fact that we must have humility in understanding that there is so much we can't understand. He was questioned by a student, wanting to know how this plays out in the life of a pastor.  "Well," the professor conceded, "There are some things that you'll learn in seminary that you won't share with your parishioners. They can't handle it."

If you are now envisioning Jack Nicholson, red-faced, "You can't handle the TRUTH!" ... well, you are not the only one.

But it made me think of some I know -- even ministers -- in UU churches, who hide parts of their spiritual lives -- daily prayer, communing with God, and what not. Would we say, "They're mostly Stage Fours. They can't handle it."?  When, of course, what we mean is, "I don't want someone to look at me and think my beliefs are ridiculous."

I think one problem that can arise, whether we are absolute doubters, absolute believers, or something in between or somewhere else, is when we hold any such belief toooo tightly. Doubt or belief, either can be squeezed so hard that to loosen our fingers would mean painful, crampy digits. We become more attached to protecting what we hold, rather than being authentic with our doubts, questions, and feelings we can't fully rationalize.

For several years now, I have been exploring my understandings of God, Spirit, and the like. I have had numinous experiences. These are cherished moments in my life.

But I remind myself to hold them loosely. Don't get too attached. And even those special moments, where I felt connected to something larger than myself, something I call God ... if you were to ask me, I would, with all humility and authenticity, say, "Yeah, but it also might just be my imagination."

And I don't feel it takes anything away by leaving that as one of the options for finding meaning. In the last Harry Potter book, he asks about an experience he had. "Was it real, or was it all in my mind?" The answer is that it can be both.

Unitarian Universalism is an agnostic religion. That doesn't mean "a polite way to say atheist."  One may give heartfelt prayers every day to God and equally be an agnostic.  We are the religion that has the humility to say, "I don't know."

To me, the model Unitarian Universalist humanist/Christian/pagan/etc. all say the same thing.  They say, "I believe X.  But I don't know that for sure."  What "X" means doesn't matter as much as, "But I don't know that for sure." But I don't know leaves room for discussion with others. But I don't know leaves room for what the person personally considers ridiculous. But I don't know leaves room for growth and revelation.

We loosen our grip, stretch our fingers. It hurts, at first. But the blood begins pumping, and soon, our fingers feel just fine.  Better, even.  If we want, we can reach out to other things now.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Sabbath That Comes Once a Day

My Jewish friends taught me about Shabbat as being the holiday that comes once a week. Lately, I've been thinking about sleep as the sabbath that comes once a day.

What would it mean, to think of our nightly (or daily, depending on work hours) as holy?

I don't know if I appreciated it as much until the hospital days.  The hospital days ... or more precisely, the hospital nights ... were broken into 1 and a half hour increments.  Because of the chemo my daughter received, she had to be pumped full of liquids to protect her kidneys.  One and a half hours. That's how long she could go without the bathroom.  She was only 3, but she refused a diaper. So every one and a half hours, she'd stir, and I'd leap from my cot beside her, and somehow maneuver her and her IV pole into the bathroom.

But I digress.

I still sleep very lightly.  Whether it is because of those 6 months or entering my forties, I can't say.

Sleep ... oh, blessed sleep.  We cuddle down into our blankets, and hopefully, are able to take just a second to feel grateful.  We are safe, we are warm.  Best of all is when we are in our own homes.

Perhaps a spouse or a mate rustles next to us.  A hound dog or a kitty yawns, stretches, and curls closer, feeling utterly safe next to the heat of our body.

A nursing baby sighs, sliding off our breast and nestling close.  Or a young child crawls next to us in the middle of night, "I had a nightmare," she mumbles, before weaving herself under your chin, her knees pressed against your belly, an expanded version of herself as she used to curl in the womb.


If we truly considered it to be holy, a gift from God that comes once a day, how would we treat it?  Would we still push ourselves, doing laundry, watching tv, checking Facebook until, exhausted, we finally succumbed and poured ourselves into bed?

Or would we, instead, treat it as part of the divine hours.  A specific time -- 10:00, 11:00?  Where we began our nighttime discipline:  wash the face, brush the teeth, visit the toilet, say a prayer, close our eyes, join in our nighttime Sabbath?

I have known a time when sleep was a much needed vacation from reality.  Where I could, for a period of time, rest.  Body, mind. and soul.  Rest.

Isn't that what Sabbath means?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Being Missional, or, It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine.

I am passionate about the missional church movement and am often asked to explain exactly what "being missional" means.


Okay, that's a bit dramatic.

But in a way, that might be accurate. The Rev. Ron Robinson and I have agreed that it's like taking the Matrix's Red Pill.  Once you have your "red pill" moment, you can no longer see church in the same way. No matter how much you want to go back to the way you used to conceive of church, you can't. "After this, there is no turning back ..."

I'm not getting less dramatic, am I?

Well, maybe because I can't. Because once you start seeing church in this different way, it causes you to do crazy things like move across the country and start holding church in a bar.  Or move to a run-down, dangerous area and start doing church by feeding and clothing the poor.  Or become the kind of minister who says, "It's not how many people come to our church services, but how many people our churches serve!,"regularly sending out requests to borrow a pickup, so you can deliver donated furniture to a program for the homeless.

Being missional is a wholly other way of conceiving and doing church. Missional is not about having a pretty mission statement up on your wall.

In terms of what it looks like, forget mission statement and think missionaries.  Think of a part of town you know -- and it could be your own -- that needs help.  Real help, not just being supportive of their spiritual journeys.

Now imagine that you have been sent there to change their lives.  By arranging for the hungry to get nutritious food, for the lonely to have someone who feels they matter.  So, you find some other people who feel similarly called.  Every week, in your own spheres of influence, you and these people go out into the world and try to make your little corner of it into the Beloved Community, where your mission is nothing less than helping each person in the community to find wholeness. You, this group of Called people, are the Church.

The Church is part of the Beloved Community, but it is not, in itself, the Beloved Community.  The Beloved Community is what you are making.  Members of the Beloved Community may never attend a worship service, but they are served by the Church.

Once a week, you and the Church gather, to strengthen your souls.  You sing, you hear an empowering message, you share how you are each doing justice, extending kindness, and walking humbly with your God, however you understand it be.

Fortified, then, you say goodbye to each other, and each of you goes forth for the week ... to strengthen the world.

And as much as you love your fellow Church members, your relationship is not the mission.  The Church members themselves are not the mission.  Each of you knows that. The only item not expendable is The Mission. 

And yet, you discover that as you help bring your little corner of the earth to wholeness, that you yourself are becoming more whole. More the person you were meant to be.

A missionary.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Group Discernment and Superheroes

One of the advantages of my seminary is that it is interdenominational. My professor for Spirituality was an evangelical Friend, or Quaker.

I learned so many things from her, both from the class syllabus and from how she lives her life. One of the big things came at the end of the semester. It was one of those unplanned things. Being a Friend, she has great respect for the Spirit moving in amongst our days, and so she is flexible in letting it guide our discussions.

On this particular day, it led to her telling us the story of how she wound up at our seminary. Or specifically, the discernment process involved.

Friends place great value on communal discernment and there is a tremendous amount of trust and respect in these discernment meetings. Cutting and pasting from my notes:

The Role of Leadership
•    The leader finds a responsible place within the process, as part of the group
•    Leadership is one of the gifts given to the community
•    The community takes seriously the perspective, skills, and gifts of the leader
•    The leader listens to the community and to the voice of the Spirit through the community

The Voices of the Community
•    Each member plays a significant role
•    Communal discernment seeks to affirm the appropriate voice and contribution of each person, corresponding to each person’s giftedness and role within the community

Gift of discernment
•    Individual contributions that enable the group to discern well
•    Varieties of expression
     --- Seeing beyond the immediate (vision)
     --- Understanding the issues and facts (critical analysis but beyond rational analysis)
     --- Identifying the emotional dimension
     --- Sharing of wisdom and insight (sage)

Conditions for Communal Discernment
•    Common Purpose
•    Resolve to Decide Together
•    Mutual Regard and Acceptance
•    Clearly Framed Matter for Discernment
•    Good information and good research

Now. getting back to my professor's story:

She and her husband were pastors in another state. She received the invitation to teach at our seminary.  What to do?

She called for a "Meeting to Discern," with her Board and church leaders. They went through the Friends' process:

* Open Discussion (Threshing):  The person calling the meeting explains just the facts.  Then, all individuals in the meeting may express any and all concerns. Issues, concerns, fears of the members, perspectives, etc.  It's all open -- no need to pretend to have no selfish interest, we all do. Here is where it is honestly exposed, rather than being hidden away.

* Prayer and Silent Reflection (Meeting for Clearness): an extended time of listening prayer. This can be done in different ways. They broke into small groups.

* Discussion toward Resolution ("Sense of the Meeting"): Moderator asks for comments and observations that have arisen out of prayer. A “sense” may emerge that there is more agreement among the group than originally thought possible.

Describing the meeting, my professor explained that the whole purpose was to discern whether the move to the seminary was a genuine God-directed call. After the threshing part of the meeting, selfish concerns (including hers and her husband's) were put to the side. It wasn't even about "what is the best thing to do," it was all on "Is this a call from God?"

They discerned that yes, it was. She said she can't imagine making the decision without that meeting. Even when things haven't been perfect since then, she and her husband can look back on the meeting and say with confidence, "We believe this was a genuine call." The process worked.

I was touched, bewildered, and quite a bit in awe at the process.  "That must take a tremendous amount of trust, to put your life in the hands of others," I said. She looked me right in the eye and said, "Absolutely."

I have thought of this often since then, wondering how, and if it's possible, for this to be played out in a UU community.  Are the differences between UUs and Friends such that the process would be impossible?

UUs do not necessarily believe in "God," and those who do usually have different definitions of the term. Of those who believe in a force outside themselves, there is a smaller group that believe this force intervenes or can be accessed in any way.  So, how could you discern a "call from God" in such a group?  How would it need to be reframed?

And then there's the independence thing. We are often so fiercely independent. Is it possible to be that independent and still have such a high degree of trust in others?

Doug Muder writes about a generational difference in UU churches between those who are fiercely independent, and those looking for a mentor, a community, to support their superhero activities. Will younger UUs be more open to group discernment?

If we feel it is of value, it seems we have a great deal of work ahead. I don't know about you, but certain things in my notes jumped out at me, red underlined sentences that shout with disbelief, "Really???"

The community takes seriously the perspective, skills, and gifts of the leader.
Resolve to Decide Together
Mutual Regard and Acceptance

Part of me says, "No, that just wouldn't work in a UU setting. We're too different. Too independent. Too focused on self-sufficiency."

But it just won't leave me alone, this idea. I heard a story filled with humility, interdependence, and love. A story that said, "We don't have to each go it alone."

I guess I am one of those that Muder writes about.  I don't want to be an orphan. I want my Scooby gang.