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Back to the Future– Re-thiking and re-learning congregational mission and purpose with major cultural shifts and progressive religious decline

This article comes from the Alban Weekly, an email from the Alban Institute, of which I’m a member.  It’s by a well known mainline church consultant whose lectures and workshops I have attended.  Of course UUSS is not in decline but poised for new growth and a renewed mission in the larger community.  But Unitarian Universalism has barely held steady over recent decades as other liberal denominations have lost hundreds of thousands of members–or not replaced the members who have passed away.

This is an excerpt of the article, which is adapted from one of his books, Adapted from A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope by Peter L. Steinke, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

Back to the Future
by Peter Steinke

At a workshop I was leading, a woman stood up and said, “If 1950 were to return, my congregation would be ready.” Succinctly, she summarized a nagging problem for many churches. The context in which congregations now find themselves is quite different from 1950. “How we do church,” though, has been quite persistent: Become a member of the local congregation, contribute money and effort, participate in communal events, volunteer time and goods, and worship regularly or at least several times a year. This pattern of “church” continued for decades in North America, but then things changed quickly.


There once was a world where the church functioned according to what some have called the “attractional” model (others have named it the participatory model). People come to a place, consume the spiritual goods, and serve as patrons to “meet the budget.” But a shift has happened. North American culture has taken new turns.

We are living in a new context where old certainties are disappearing, old institutions are less dependable, old assumptions are questionable, and old neighborhoods are less cohesive. Logically, if not spiritually, we may even have to allow for the possibility that these dislocations could be part of God’s new creation. It may be God working through the unknown …. taking history into unexpected turns.


The challenge of change for a congregation on a steady downward slope is precisely to redefine and redirect its mission. They have to realize that decline is not an end to mission. Yes, they are mere shadows of their past. Yes, rethinking mission is difficult, for congregations are burdened by big or deteriorating buildings, smaller staffs, a paucity of young families, and a shortage of hope. But expansion is not the sole gauge of mission orientation. One problem with this thinking is the belief that, for congregations, all things are equal. But congregations are not in the same place, same stage, or same circumstance. That’s not reality.


Congregations may hanker for a technique that will bring about results they want to achieve; they want to replicate what has been discovered by someone else: “Give me a copy of the wonderful plans.” Seeing what those plans have done for others, they want the same result—but without going through the process that got the others to that point. The shortcut of imitation certainly bypasses a lot of pain. How churches hunger for precisely this situation!


Meaningful, lasting outcomes are the result of the journey and the learning that takes place. Maybe a word of caution should be stamped on all programs: “Not transferable.” Transition time is life’s curriculum. Being on the path opens new insight; being on the path, not the steps one takes, is the very condition necessary for learning.
… The process of thinking, testing, and exploring contains the lessons. Congregations need to remember that no handbook is available on freelancing mission. Only by going out, being there, and seeing from a fresh angle will the process lead to learning. Discovering how to respond to shifts and changes is the learning. Self-confidence is a byproduct. But growth is in the struggle, the push, and the journey.

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UU Sermon: Epiphany of the Face
 
January 6, 2012                                                             
Unitarian Universalist Society, Sacramento, California
Roger Jones, Associate Minister
 
Hymns  
SLT 100 (I’ve Got Peace Like a River), SLT 38 (Morning Has Broken), STJ 1010 (Oh, We Give Thanks), SLT 315 (This Old World).  Vocal duet:  “Simple Gifts,” congregation sings third time.

Pastoral Prayer

Now I invite you to a time of contemplation in word and silence.  This time will be followed by music.

Please settle your mind and spirit.  Notice your hands resting. Notice your feet and bodies, resting in the Spirit.  Notice the breath of life coming through you…as I offer these words.

Spirit of Life and of Love, bless us, and bless this world with peace and healing.

Give us hearts full of gratitude for the gift of life, and the blessing of this new day and this new year.  May this new year come as an invitation, an opening to possibility.  May we strive to greet the days ahead with serenity and courage, patience and compassion, curiosity and wondering.  May we be surprised by joy.

As we seek a fresh beginning, we know we cannot ignore the past.  We may grieve damaged relationships.  Let us release ourselves from the prison of resentment.  May we take a few more steps in the direction of healing and freedom.

At this time we may be thinking of loved ones we have lost to death—those lost recently, and those whose absence we mark at this time of worship.  Pat Setzer passed away last Monday after a long decline; she will be missed.  Other names of those we have lost are on our hearts.  Let us now speak their names into the space of our sanctuary.

We reach out in care to those facing a family crisis, medical challenge, financial distress, heartache and loss, and burdens of the body, mind or spirit.  At this time, life is ebbing away from Bill and Dorothy, two longtime members and loyal elders of this religious community.  Let us say the names of any of the others who need our love, and whose faces we can see in our minds.  Either whispering to ourselves or calling out our concerns for others to hear, let us now speak the names on our hearts into the space of our sanctuary.

Life has its light moments and joyful milestones also.  We give thanks for the moments of celebration, and we invite those names or events to be spoken into the space of our sanctuary. Alice, going into Americorps for a year of service.  Hillary, going to Germany to study this semester. …

May one another’s good news give all of us reasons for joy.

Let us remember the divine spark dwelling within us, and let it shine.  May we notice the needs and hungers of others; may we hear the lamentations of our human family.  We pray for the simple gift of a world at peace.  We long for violence to end, and we mourn the lives lost and bodies injured… here in this region, around this country, in all parts of the globe.      When we can make a difference, let us reach out.  When we have the chance to speak out, let us say what must be said.  When we can offer help, let us extend a hand. When we need help, let us ask for it, even when our voice is trembling.

Spirit of Life and of Love, bless us, and bless this world with peace and healing.  Blessed be, and amen.

 

Sermon

For Christmas I received a booklet of sticky notes entitled Commandments.  On the cover:  Moses in red robes, on Mt. Sinai, holding two stone tablets up in a lightning storm.  Open the little book, and on the left side, a pad of gray sticky notes, shaped like stone tablets.  Each one has the heading: “Thou Shalt.”  On the right side, a pad of notes that say:  “Thou Shalt Not.”  Could be handy for those with kids.

Though these two little pads hold more than 10 Commandments, this gift got me thinking about those commandments of Bible fame.   Jewish tradition is filled with commentaries, debates and stories about how to apply and live the Commandments, and which are most important.  And the Jewish teacher named Jesus got a question or two.

As reported in the Gospel of Luke, a religious scholar demanded to know what was most important for obtaining  eternal life.  “Well,” Jesus answered, “What’s written in God’s Law?”

[The man responded:] “That you love … your God—with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.  “Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”  Looking for a loophole, the man asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead [in a ditch]. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road…, but when he saw [the man] he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite [, another] religious man [,] showed up; he also avoided the injured man.   A Samaritan traveling the road came to him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, [cleaning] and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’   

“What do you think? [Jesus asked.]  Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”  “The one who treated him kindly,” the religious scholar   responded.  Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”[i]  [Luke 10:25-37]

 

This old parable has generated much reflection and many interpretations.  A striking aspect, of course, is the hypocrisy of the holy priest and Levite, passing on by the hurting man.  But the story has a big surprise after that.  In any story told among Jews, a Samaritan would be an unlikely hero.  Samaritans were a strange, different tribe.  They were hated and feared. They were OTHER.  To hear that one of them would be merciful, generous, neighborly, and self-sacrificing.  That would get your attention.  So:   Why did he choose to be a neighbor, to care for this man in the ditch who was from a different belief system and culture?

Perhaps the Samaritan had an epiphany.  A spiritual experience, a moment of insight.  Today, January 6, is called Epiphany in the traditional calendar of the Christian year.  One kind of epiphany is the manifestation of a divine being.  But another kind, a more universal epiphany, is a sudden revelation, an insight.  I call it a cosmic kick in the head.   It’s when we see what we didn’t see before, and we are transformed.

This helpful Samaritan—what was his epiphany?  Perhaps it was as simple as this:  he looked on the face of that wounded man.  He didn’t turn away, but looked.  The priest and the Levite were too busy to see him; they crossed the road.  The Samaritan saw him in the face.

The late philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has said that the face of the other is an epiphany.  It is a revelation.  It is a moment of ethical challenge.  He explains that our human bodies are vulnerable and life is precarious.  Our identity comes from our dependence on others, our dependence on one another.  At the same time, Levinas says, our human nature can be violent; we have an impulse to exploit, harm, cheat, even kill.  Yet we also have the power to be merciful, kind, and generous. The human face communicates our vulnerability, but it also communicates an ethical demand: Do not kill me.  The epiphany of the face is humbling.  When we look on the face of the other, it speaks to us:  Do not kill me.  Do not let me die.  Do not let me die alone.

Emmanuel Levinas was born in 1906 to a Jewish family in Lithuania, and he died in 1995.  He moved to France for graduate studies and became a French citizen in 1930.  He spent much of the Second World War in captivity.  After the war, his philosophical teaching focused on ethics.  He argued that in philosophy, ethics is more important than truth-seeking.  We don’t need to know the nature of existence to sense our ethical duty to other people.  One’s ethical relation to “the other” comes before one’s relationship to the world, even before one’s relationship to himself or herself.[ii] (Levinas 1986, 21)

Are we basically good, or bad?  Are we worthy, or unworthy?  These are questions of human nature and identity, not of ethics.  They are not the first question of philosophy, for Levinas.  The first question, the first challenge to us from philosophy must be:  What is my duty to the other?

Levinas says that “the face of the other in its precariousness and defenselessness is, is for me at once the temptation to kill and the call to peace.”[iii] (Butler, 134)

University of California professor Judith Butler, writing about Levinas, explains:  “The Other’s face … at once tempts me [as a human being] with murder and prohibits me from acting on it.  The face operates to produce a struggle … [the] struggle at the heart of ethics.”  (Butler, 135)

Levinas says this demand is the heart of our identity;  “I am defined [he says] as … a singular person, as an ‘I,’ precisely because I am exposed to the other.”  It is because I am [inescapably answerable] to the other that makes me an individual.” (27)

Levinas was a secular thinker who identified with the tradition of Greek philosophers.  Yet he was Jewish, and he did write commetnaries on stories in the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures.  Whereas traditional theologians might say the Bible is about the relationship of humans to God, Levinas would say that the stories in the Bible are about human beings encountering one another, face to face.  They are about the question:  Am I my brother’s keeper?  Am I my sister’s keeper?

Levinas says yes.  He reports:  “There is a Jewish proverb which says that ‘the other’s material needs are my spiritual needs.’”

In the story about Jesus, the scholar starts out selfishly: how can I get eternal life.  Jesus reminds him of Jewish law:  Love God all that you can and love your neighbor as yourself.  The next question is not:  Who or what is God?  And it’s not:  How much shall I love God?  The question is:  Who is my neighbor?  Jesus tells a story, and there’s not an easy answer to be found in it.

In Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, Al-yo-sha Karamazov says:  “We are all responsible for everyone else – but I am more responsible than all the others.”  He takes responsibility for his duty to the other, but refrains from imposing it on anyone else, from demanding of others ethically as much as he demands from himself.   

Once during a dialogue, another philosopher asked Levinas, if we aren’t  “ethically obliged to struggle for a perfect world of peace?”  Levinas said, “Yes, but I seek this peace not for me but for the other.”  This, he said, is his standard for himself. (31)

I’ve often wondered about the difference between ethics and morality.  I’m still not sure I understand it.  In any case, to Levinas they are not the same.  As I understand him, ethics is about a primary personal duty to the other.  Though morality “is … founded on an ethical responsibility,” it is about “a series of rules relating to social behavior and civic duty.  [Morality] operates in the [political and social] order [for] … improving our human survival.”

Levinas explains:  “If there were only two people in the world, there would be no need for law courts [or other social structures], because I would always be responsible” for the other.  “As soon as there are three, the ethical relationship with the other” involves community structures and political systems to balance competing needs and claims.  (21)

Ethics is not a rule of conduct or “a manifesto.” (29)  It is a struggle, a search, and a call.  We can feel it and hear it when we look upon the face.

Judith Butler says the face of the other speaks to us, “Speaks in a voice that is not its own.”  It speaks “in something other than language.”

She says:  “We need to hear the face as it speaks to know the precariousness of life that is at stake.” (151) This is the epiphany.

Butler recalls:  “In the Vietnam War, it was pictures of the children burning and dying from napalm that brought the US public to a sense of shock, outrage, remorse and grief.”  Seeing those pictures, seeing the precarious lives in whose deaths our fighting was involved, this country turned against our involvement in the war.  The public was not meant to see those pictures, Butler says; we were to see only images chosen to be portrayed as the face of the enemy, not images of as the face of suffering real people.

She writes:  “Media representations of the face of the ‘enemy’ [often remove or] efface what is most human about the face.” (Butler 2006, xviii).

Butler notes that in our recent wars in the Middle East, government and media have shown us few faces of civilian families destroyed by our weapons.  They have spoken few of the names of the civilian dead.   Now we use drone aircraft for waging war, which is undeclared but real.   A drone is a remotely flown plane for surveillance and for bombing.   Most often from the government we hear of terrorist leaders killed by drone strike; in the media we see a face pic of an enemy.  Yet, as activists and eyewitnesses are learning and trying to tell us, this new arms-length mode of smart combat can eviscerate as many civilian bodies and end as many children’s lives as the old fashioned kind.

Levinas has described ethical responsibility “as insomnia or wakefulness.” He says this is “because it is a perpetual duty … that can never slumber.” (30)

To be ethical, to love neighbor, is to be watchful and vigilant.  Love of neighbor “cannot sleep.”

Yet, Levinas writes, it is common for us to drift off to sleep, to give up watching.  It’s a choice commonly made.  Yet he says:  “Even if I deny my … responsibility to the other… I can never escape the fact that the other has demanded a response from me before I [assert] my freedom not to respond.”  (27)

This makes me think of panhandlers on the street.

Perhaps it is a common sight for you, as you walk, drive or bike around, to see men and women begging for money by the side of the road, at intersections, or on sidewalks near stores.  Perhaps you or someone you know has been in that situation, has been so desperate that panhandling seemed like the only option left.  Holding up a cardboard sign:

Please help.  Need food.  Homeless.

 Have kids.  Have AIDS.  Veteran.  Hungry. 

Thank you and God bless.

I can imagine that when we encounter this reality, we experience a wide variety of reactions.  Among us here is probably a range of opinions about how to respond when asked for money.  Some of us don’t want to say no.  We tell ourselves:  it’s not much money to me, and it can mean a lot to them.  Some of us feel we just can’t spare the money; things are that tight.  Some who work hard every day resent a person standing outside collecting money every day.   Some are afraid of getting scammed.  We may worry about financing an active addiction.   We may suspect that a given panhandler is not really homeless; what if he has disability income and a facility in which to live?   With a diversity of perspectives among us, this can be a rich and challenging topic of conversation.  For the record, here is my approach.  It’s not the perfect one, just the one I use.

While I may offer food if I have some, and I’ve bought meals for some people, I don’t give money to those begging for it.  Instead I direct my donations to local organizations that have a mission to help.  I trust their expertise in making good use of the money.  I let their staff decide who really needs what.  I trust them to set limits.  I trust them to wrestle over the question:  How much is enough?

So if I am walking down the sidewalk, and I get a request for money, I say, “I’m sorry, sir,” or “I’m sorry, ma’am.”  And I try to look at them.  Or, sitting in my car waiting for a red light to change, if a beggar is holding a crude sign six or eight feet from the window, I make myself look.  I look them in the face. I greet their eyes, nod once, or smile.     Of course a smile is not what they are soliciting, but it can’t hurt.  And looking into their face reminds me that they are human.  It challenges me.  It gives me questions I can’t answer.

Philosophers and spiritual teachers give us challenging questions.  They do not give us airtight answers. Often they can sound unrealistic, even utopian, in the ways they challenge us.

Levinas admits that he is accused of being utopian, of being unrealistic:  “’Where did you ever see the ethical relation practiced?’ people say to me.”

He replies:  “This concern for the other remains utopian in the sense that it is always… other than ‘the ways of the world.’”  Even so, he reminds us, “there are many examples of [this concern] in the world.”  (32)  Concern for the other is not the way of the world, but there are many examples of it in the world.

Even if our ethical relationship is utopian, he says, this “does not prevent it from investing our everyday actions [investing them with] generosity or goodwill towards the other:  even the smallest and most commonplace gestures, such as saying ‘after you’ as we sit at the dinner table or walk through a door, bear witness to the ethical.”

Reading philosophers is hard for me–learning a new vocabulary, wading through their wordiness, straining to make sense of a dense book.  Fortunately, some philosophy can be lived and felt without words.  We can practice our ethical awareness by looking at the face of the other, whoever that might be, however we might be given a glimpse of that face.  We can feel what the face has to say, without words, without language, with a voice we hear in our hearts.

When it comes to ethics, we can start with what is revealed when we encounter the face:  face to face, vulnerable human being to vulnerable human being.

Our actions matter.   We are bound together in vulnerability and in our need.  We need one another more than we know.

Blessed be, and peace.  So may it be.  Amen.


[i] Luke 10:25-37 from The Message translation by Eugene Peterson.

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke 10:25-37&version=KJV;MSG;NIV

[ii] (Levinas 1986)

[iii] (Butler 2006)

 

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2006.

 

Levinas, Emmanuel and Richard Kearney. “Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas.” In Face to Face with Levinas, by Richard A. Cohen. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1986.

 



Was Christopher Hitchens Religious?

Hitchens was the British-born immigrant American  journalist, critic, and polemicist who died last week.

Acerbic, smart, wide-ranging and extreme in argument, he was noted for going after Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and religious believers of all kinds. Formerly a Marxist and still a leftist, he nevertheless was a strong advocate of invading Iraq in 2003. In the cause of opposing “Islamofascism,” he would attack anyone who seemed to promote tolerance toward Islam as a religion and as a movement. While he may have done significant muckraking journalism about Mother Theresa (but I don’t know), his attitudes about religion left no room for nuance, complexity, and contradictions in the diverse world of religion.

This is an interesting short article from the Rev. Marilyn Sewell of Portland. It’s posted on the Beacon Press “Broadside.”
http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2011/12/was-christopher-hitchens-religious.html

See what you think, and feel free to add a comment here.