Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Beyond Casseroles: Who Am I & What Are We Doing Here?

September 21, 2008

My inaugural sermon as Family Minister, UU Society of Sacramento, CA

Hymns:  Singing the Living Tradition (SLT) #210, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”; “I Know that You Know that I Love You; What I Want You to Know Is that I Know that You Love Me Too”; SLT #51 “Lady of the Season’s Laughter.”

Reading:  “Shoulders,” a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye


Survey question:  How many people here have been life long Unitarian Universalists?  [Show of hands.]  Not very many of us, it appears.  Well, this is not an adequate survey.  That’s because most of our life-long UUs are now over there, in the Religious Education building.  As a minister, and especially in this role as your family minister, I am guided by a vision of “doing church” in ways that will create and support new generations of life-long UUs, ever-larger generations of people who know in their bones that this religious movement is their lifelong home.

I am not a lifelong UU– but I’ve been a UU since about age 24, longer than I was a member of the church in which I grew up.  That church was a midsize congregation, in the middle-American small town of Franklin, Indiana, and it’s part of the Disciples of Christ, a middle of the road Protestant denomination.  My father had grown up in it and my mother had joined when they were married.  My brother is 12 years older than I am, so he was out of the house by the time I started first grade.   My mom and I attended worship every Sunday, usually without my dad.  [There’s a picture of the sanctuary on your order of service.  You can see the pew where we sat almost every Sunday—on the right side, three up from the front row.]  Sunday school took place in the hour before church.  I was self-conscious around my peers and rarely went to Sunday school.  I recall going once, while mom went to adult Sunday school at the same time.  After class I went into the hallway expecting her to be waiting for me.  She wasn’t, and I walked the halls looking for her.  I panicked, sure that I had lost her forever.  Now, it wasn’t that big of a church or that confusing in layout, especially compared to this one.  Now, in this place one could see why a child could get lost.  But I know that many grownups here would reach out and help them find their way.  Furthermore, I believe that this is a good place for children and adults to find out who they are and who they are becoming.

So I didn’t go to Sunday school in my church.  Instead, I went straight to the top—to the home of the minister and his wife.  Myron and Ethel Kauffman lived a few blocks from us when I was a child.   My regular visits to their house were uninvited and unannounced, but they always welcomed in this earnest kid.   They talked with me about many things, even politics. They didn’t like President Nixon—or Billy Graham, the Evangelist.  She showed me her rock-polishing machine.  I told them about my interest in wildlife conservation and my worries about ecological catastrophe. Once I telephoned the minister to say I had found a dead bird and asked him where in the Bible were the words I could use for a burial service—ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  I didn’t tell him that the bird was only injured when I had found it and that I had killed it.  Clearly I was a child who should have been dragged to Sunday school every week, and therapy too.

A month or two after my 13th birthday, my mother remembered that I was now at the typical age at which youth were baptized in our Disciples of Christ denomination.  She learned that our Sunday School course for kids planning for baptism had begun a few weeks earlier.  Mom didn’t want me to wait another year, and the church allowed me to join the class at the next to the last session.  For a self-conscious kid, the only thing worse than being inserted in a group that already had been meeting for several weeks would be to show up late for the first class I could make, and that happened too. The teacher was kind and welcoming, and he wore a suit, as most men did at church back then. [Pause to scan the congregation, as they realize nobody else has a suit on but me.]

I don’t remember learning about the meaning of baptism or the expectations of membership.  I do remember what happened after the class was over.  During the next service my classmates and I stood at the front of the sanctuary.  Dr. Kauffman came to each of us, took our hand, and asked us if we professed our faith in Jesus as Lord.   I wasn’t sure if I did, and I wasn’t sure what that meant.  By arriving late in the baptism course I probably had missed my opportunity to explore the concept.

A week later, during the Palm Sunday service, my classmates and I went off to separate changing rooms for the boys and girls.  We stripped down to our underwear, put on a white robe, and stood in a line in the linoleum-floored hallway behind the baptismal pool.  This was a small room or compartment in the corner of the chapel beside the sanctuary, with a door in the back and curtains in the front. By now the congregation was standing in the chapel outside those curtains. The ritual began; soon I was next in line.  A kid came dripping down the steps, then I went up—three steps up and three more down into the water. The pool was the size of a hot tub, except the water was not hot.   Dr. Kauffman was waiting for me in his black robe and black hip-wading boots.  He pulled a chain, opened the curtain, and put his arm around my shoulders.  To the crowd facing us, he said, “This is Roger.  Roger, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”  I held a handkerchief, and he put my hand up to cover my face and pushed me backwards into the water.  Instinctively I blew bubbles out my nose.  As he brought me up, he closed the curtain and I walked up the stairs, dripping.

As I look back now, it seems that this moment–the moment at which I became a true member of that church, I began drifting away from it.   In the past few decades this has been a common story in many denominations:  confirmation classes and rituals are the equivalent of graduation ceremonies, the marker for when kids begin to leave rather than when they truly belong.  This is true in particular in the moderate, Mainline denominations, which have lost millions from their membership rolls, as kids have grown up and left them, either for conservative mega-churches or for no church at all, and as elders have passed away.

Perhaps it is typical for teenagers to feel that family and religious ties become ties that constrict, and for a process of separation to begin.  Perhaps it’s normal to assert one’s independence, even to bristle against the practices and expectations one has grown up with.

Yet there are millions of adults who grew up in Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and conservative Protestant denominations—and stayed in them.  They never left the faith.  There are notable exceptions, of course–people who left a more conservative or constricting faith when they grew up.  Some of these notable exceptions are sitting here right now—they found UUism as grown ups, on their own terms.  But many others did not grow up and drift away.

A decade ago our Unitarian Universalist Association had its General Assembly in Salt Lake City, the Mecca of Mormonism.  Our UUA President and UUA Moderator met with the men who lead that church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) for some interfaith dialogue.  As I recall, our President reported that the Mormon leader had said:  “If you Unitarians learned how to hang on to your young people, you’d be the most dangerous religion in America!”  I don’t think he meant it to be helpful.

How is it that the Mormons have grown from a small and persecuted sect in 19th century America to a large, powerful world-wide movement?  While their vitality and growth are enviable, I do not see their social power as a positive development, given the values I hold as a religious liberal.  Right now in California, for example, the Mormon Church is a leader of the assault on civil marriage rights for same-sex couples.  At their services today, in fact, Mormon and other conservative churches will arm church members with one million yard signs in favor of Proposition 8, which would eliminate the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.

How did they get so strong?  A full analysis of their growth and strength would take too much time.  But part of their strength comes from their version of family ministry, and the strong Mormon identity they promote among their children and youth. They devote attention and resources to their children, youth and families.  Their people know where their spiritual home is, all through their lives.

For the past several decades, ministering to families with children has not received much attention from liberal and moderate churches.  The mainstream church culture has not promoted vitality and growth.  If it had, the numbers would be higher.  I describe this mainstream culture as one of neglect posing as non-instrusiveness.  For decades, church was something you did.  In my experience and from what I’ve heard from others, church did not exist to provoke self-reflection, challenge ways of thinking, stretch you or stir you to bold action.  It wasn’t expected to change your life, only to be part of your lifestyle.

Too often in mainstream religious communities people were expected to act as if they were doing just fine, as if they had it all together. Well, my family didn’t have it all together.  We weren’t fine.  I don’t have time to elaborate on my family’s dysfunctions now.  I should save it for entertaining sermon illustrations later on.  But I do want to tell you that when I was 14 years old, my father had a massive heart attack and died.  Relatives gathered from near and far for the funeral.  Our minister gave a beautiful service, and the church women brought food to us in the days before and after the funeral–ham, meatloaf, salads, vegetables, desserts, and casseroles.  This gesture of generosity and sympathy was nourishing both spiritually and physically.  Yet after those early days there was no outreach to me by either peers or elders in the congregation.  They were good people, but no one there invited me for a walk, to a movie or lunch or their family outing. Dr. and Mrs. Kauffman moved out of town for a new ministry; otherwise they might have been more helpful in my grieving process.  For the rest of my high school years, nobody from church asked me what it was like to go through my journey of grieving.  At least this is how I remember it. I did not talk to anyone in any depth about the loss of my father for seven years, when I had made some college friends–and made an appointment with a mental health professional.

Why was this the case in my life in that church?  Two reasons occur to me.  One is that my family had not made ourselves part of the fabric of the community, even though we had been in it for three generations.  As a family we didn’t pursue friendships there.  It’s just what we did on Sundays. My parents had let me skip Sunday school, instead of trying to understand my shyness around my peers.  We didn’t ask for much there, and little was asked or expected of us.  We knew we could count on casseroles in times of a death in the family, but for me casseroles were not enough.  So when I entered college I did not run away from church, I just drifted away.   Later on I may tell you the rest of my journey—from self-conscious kid to young adult church goer to lay leader to ordained minister, but I’d like to talk about what we’re doing here.

Over the past few decades, I believe, the religious and political right wing has risen to power in part by the use of scare tactics—telling Americans that their worries and their wounds were the fault of liberal attitudes and the expansion of equal rights.  While I denounce the fear-mongering, I see that the religious and political reactionaries got something right:  they listened to families.  They knew people were hurting and worried.  Successful churches, most of them conservative ones, acknowledged that people didn’t have it all together.   They addressed the feeling that many people had:  that our lives were unraveling.   Yes, to a great extent they have manipulated families, but to do this they had to listen first. They listened to families.  In the mainstream churches, however, there was a culture that families should not our vulnerabilities and fears.

The good news now is that moderate and liberal churches have caught on– and we’re catching up!   This is why I am excited to be serving as your family minister.   I believe that our churches must promote relationships of authenticity, trust, and care –across the generations as well as within each generation.  One way this church does that is through groups called Ministry Circles.  These groups meet twice a month to build intimacy by hearing one another’s personal stories and perspectives.  Some new groups are in the works, including one on the theme of spiritual parenting. They can make a big difference in a person’s experience of church—they’re like a community within the larger community of the church.   If you’re interested, let us know.

In the last several years, groups like these Ministry Circles have emerged in UU churches all over the continent. Four years ago, when I was the minister at a Bay Area congregation, I made a pastoral visit to an elderly member after she’d had major orthopedic surgery.  She was living alone, but she had been part of a ministry group [called a covenant group there, as in many UU churches.]  She told me about all the support she was getting from her group members, among others at church.  Visits in the hospital, visits in the convalescent center, and a ride home when she got strong enough to go home.  She was inundated with food— several days’ worth of lunch and dinner.  One member of her ministry group found out what she needed and coordinated the efforts of everybody who was willing to help out. The recipient of this help was impressed with the scale of the operation, and moved by the care. She told me how important the group had become for her, how much she loved them.  She said,  “I really feel a deep connection when we meet!”

“Why do you think that is?” I asked her.  She said, “I think it’s because it’s not small talk.”  They talk about important things, she said, matters of the heart.  She told me that, years before coming to our church, she and her former spouse had been in a group at another UU church–for 17 years.  They had joined a small group on arriving at the church, but had never gone back to the church itself in all those years.  It was called an “extended family group,” yet all they did was have a potluck dinner once a month.  That’s what they did, for 17 years.  One time, a group member lost a loved one in a very tragic way, but the extended family group didn’t learn about it until it was long past.  To me, that group does not sound like an extended family.  It sounds as if it was a guarantee that you could count on having dinner companions once a month.  I do not think those dinners were occasions of authenticity, trust, and care.  Apparently they were not designed to provide that.  But that is what many of our UU congregations are striving for now, and what we are building in our churches.

Many of you know what this congregation does well. Some can remember the shining moments in this congregation’s history.  Now we are at a new moment.  You may recall a golden era; now we are shaping a new era in the church’s life and ministry.

I am here to help you build on your strengths, especially in ministering to children and families.  I seek to help you build nurturing relationships of authenticity, trust and care across the generations.  If we do this, I think we will build new generations of life-long Unitarian Universalists.  We will experience greater joy among ourselves, and we will take healing beyond these walls out into a hurting world.

Maybe we don’t have to become what the Christian right wing would consider the most dangerous religion in America.  We don’t have to be the most powerful denomination of progressive religion, or the biggest or the flashiest.  But we can share in a more authentic, abundant, joyful and hopeful sense of life with one another.  And can make the world a better place.  So may it be.  Amen.


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