Sunday, March 29, 2009

Spilling the Beans

This morning was the kick-off of our annual Stewardship Campaign: four homilies from the four members of our ministerial "team" -- myself, the Minister of Music, and the two part-time ministers who were brought in to support me after I was diagnosed with cancer. That may sound like an awful lot of preaching, but it actually worked out magnificently...and without much advanced coordination between us either. Of course, today's service was really merely the mid-point of what has already been about six weeks worth of warm-up: planning, testimonials, the recruitment and training of visiting stewards, the preparation and mailing of our written materials, and (of course) the all-church fellowship event on Saturday night: an old-fashioned Bean Supper complete with corny entertainment and home-made pie. And now we can still look forward to another three to four weeks of home visits and face to face conversations, after which we should know how close we are to reaching our goal in these challenging economic circumstances.

As now both a part-timer and a short-termer myself, I haven't really paid that much attention to the finer details of the campaign this year. I don't even know what our canvass goal is, much less how likely we are to reach it based on our historical pledge numbers. I do know that the value of our endowment is down by about 30%, and have spoken personally with four different people who have either lost or left their jobs in the past few weeks. But I've also been told that we potentially have as many as sixty new pledgers this year, and this alone could easily make all the difference between success and disappointment. It's hard to say. There has been so much energy and good feeling around the church, really since the moment I arrived here two years ago, notwithstanding my eventual illness and diagnosis six months into this ministry. The way the members of this congregation rallied around me (and one another) was an authentic "George Bailey moment," and has both inspired and empowered a lot of people to get involved in ways they hadn't been involved with the church before. Attendance has been strong, with lots of first-time visitors every Sunday. So all those signs are very good.

But at the same time, the economic downturn has really put a damper on a lot of the things we dreamed of doing here. When I was candidating here two years ago, the air was filled with big plans for real estate expansion and partnerships with local arts, educational, and social justice organizations, and a much more visible footprint here at the head of Temple Street. Now it feels as if everyone is just hunkering down, and waiting to see how dark it's going to get before the dawn. And that, of course, has nothing to do with MY illness; it's just the sad and shameful legacy of eight years of plundering by the Bushies and their cronies. Meanwhile, now that my decision not to return here in the fall is public news, I'm starting to hear from all of the people for whom my ministry has made a big difference in their lives, who are sorry to see me going, who wish that I could stay, who tell me in just so many words what a huge inspiration I've been for them personally, and how much I have done for the church in such a short time. And naturally, it's hard for me to hear all that without beginning to second-guess myself, and falling into that trap of thinking that I'm indispensable, that no one can possibly do this job as well as I can, that by leaving now and denying this church the benefit of my vision, my experience, my enthusiasm, devotion and general excellence, I am in some way "leaving them in the lurch."

And whenever I start to feel this way, I just need to remind myself that we all THINK we're indispensable, but none of us really are, and that the fact that my departure may very well be setting them back a decade or more (as someone recently suggested to me) really means very little to a congregation which measures its lifespan in centuries. I'm proud of whatever I've been able to accomplish in my all-too-brief time here; I wish it could have been longer (as I think everyone does), but God-Providence-Destiny-the Universe had a different plan both for me and for them, and that's just the way it's got to be. And that's my mantra. None of us would have wished for this, and we can all mourn the loss of "what might have been." And I will miss them too once I'm gone. But let's take THIS time to say goodbye, and celebrate the time we had together, rather than squandering it with regret.

And if I ever find myself feeling TOO nostalgic, I just need to remind myself of these abominable Maine winters....

Meanwhile, if you are interested in what a minister in my situation might have to say to their congregation at Stewardship time, here are links to both my Stewardship Packet letter and my Sunday Morning kick-off homily. Enjoy!

Stewardship Letter
Stewardship Homily

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Monkey Mindfulness

[Over at Monkey Mind, Providence Rhode Island minister James Ishmael Ford is writing about the role Joseph Campbell played in the renewal of the "spiritual" aspects of our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. Here's a copy of the comment I posted there, which I'm posting here as well simply because it's such an easy thing to do.]

In 1978 I wrote my Senior Honors thesis at the University of Washington on Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God (a document now thankfully forever lost to posterity). The following year at HDS I continued to pursue those interests through coursework in Buddhism and the Buddhist/Christian dialogue, The Interpretation of Religious Experience, and James Fowler's theories of Faith Development.

My point is that even then -- a decade before the Moyers interviews -- some of us had already picked up on the idea of Unitarian Universalism as a "reasonable mysticism" -- a faith tradition which had grounded itself in science, "natural theology" and the other intellectual tools of the Enlightenment, but was still open to non-rational (as opposed to irrational) ways of knowing, and had a rich heritage of intuitive, "mystical" knowledge as well, "peak experiences" (in Maslow's terms) which could be described phenomenologically, and even recreated with some reliability through the use of certain kinds of time-tested techniques and practices.

Perry Miller's famous essay "From Jonathan Edwards to Emerson" makes almost this exact same point about Unitarianism's Enlightened Puritans and their Transcendentalist offspring, who looked back to their grandparents in order to re-embrace the emotional and spiritual intensity of that spirit-filled world. Finally, the work of (UU - although I didn't know it at the time) Frederick Streng on "Emptiness," along with the theories of German Sociologist of Religion Ernst Troeslsch (a major influence on James Luther Adams) about "Church," "Sect" and "Mysticism" as the three building blocks of Christian communities, helped me to pull a lot of these pieces together, at least in my own mind.

Our UU churches are places set apart (like a sect) from the rest of the world, where we can come to safely explore more deeply within ourselves (mysticism), and then return to the world with a redemptive, sacramental gift of grace (the Church) which has the power to transform the world....a cycle which (not coincidentally) exactly parallels Campbell's Heroic Journey. Anyway, that's how I learned it at Harvard, 30 years ago. Do you think I ought to ask for my tuition back?