Sunday, July 22, 2007

Preaching the word

This is gonna be a long post, so if religion ain't your bag, go ahead and visit some other blog that doesn't talk religion. Because I preached today, and it went quite well.

Here's what I said.

When I read the theme for this year’s summer series, "The Search for Truth and Meaning," it sounded a bit familiar. I realized quickly why. Until this year, my alma mater, Rhodes College, required each student to complete a four-semester humanities course called "The Search for Meaning (some long subtitle here about Western religion, literature, history, and philosophy)" (they have recently redesigned their liberal arts curriculum and it seems that they’ve eliminated this course entirely). Having been an Art History major, a Women's Studies minor, and filling as much of my elective time as possible in the Religious Studies department, the "Search" coursework was near and dear to my heart.

I started college a good Presbyterian girl. Rhodes is a Presbyterian college. The expectation, all around, was that I would graduate a good Presbyterian woman.

But that's not what happened. The courses I took in religion, history, art, literature, philosophy, psychology, and anthropology opened my mind to a broader worldview and a wider definition of the divine. By the end of my sophomore year, I had stripped myself of the "Christian" label and began searching for my own truth and meaning. In those explorations, I found the Unitarian Universalist church.

But let’s back up. What happened that made me a good Presbyterian girl? What is a good Presbyterian girl, anyway? And what did my Presbyterian childhood bring to the table in college, and afterward?

The easiest answer is two words: Sunday School. My family attended church almost every Sunday, a few Wednesdays, and most every holiday. Other than the holiday services, the kids attended Sunday School for an hour before church, then we attended church with our parents. This is pretty typical of mainstream Protestant denominations, and it’s a model of church that is very comfortable for me. We children learned to sit still, and maybe even listen, through the church service, and we learned the familiar Bible stories in Sunday School. Moses and the Burning Bush, Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Jonah and the Whale, the Sermon on the Mount. These old stories were all too familiar to me by the time I was in school. I could locate them in the Bible easily by the time I was my children’s age. By middle school I could quote fairly long passages of Scripture and could name all the books of the Bible, in order (I don’t think I’ve retained that skill, unfortunately).

That working knowledge of the Bible was, and is, extremely useful. In my religion courses in college, my understanding of the Bible was enhanced by learning more about the historical and political context in which the Bible was written. And the more I learned, the less I believed. But, even if I didn’t believe it, I still knew my Bible very well.

That knowledge serves me well in numerous situations. Trivia? I’m your girl if the topic moves toward the Bible. Looking at Renaissance art? I can tell you what’s being illustrated. Dogmatic battle? I can bring on some Leviticus like nobody’s business. And I’ve done it.

See, the thing is, we Unitarian Universalists are sometimes guilty of throwing out the baby with the bath water. In our search for truth and meaning, we are happy to embrace Eastern traditions, Earth religions, Native American spirituality. Anything, really, except the tradition from which we are direct descendants. (Go ahead and squirm: I’m talking about Christianity.)

Kathleen Norris, a poet and author, has explored faith for the last twenty or so years. Brought up as a mainstream Protestant, the granddaughter of a Methodist minister, she strayed away from the church in college and for years afterward. In 1985, she joined the Presbyterian church in her mother’s childhood hometown, where she had lived since 1974. But at the same time in her life, she began visiting Benedictine monasteries in a nearby state, becoming a lay associate with the Benedictines. In her book, "Amazing Grace," Kathleen Norris explores the language of the Christian faith. This collection of essays about "The Ten Commandments", "Repentance", "Prayer", "Salvation" and more also includes other meditations about other aspects of faith.

This book is near to my heart. During a very difficult time in my life, my mother gave it to me, only because she had thought it was interesting and thought I might agree. I read this book slowly, just one essay at a time, and Norris’s words washed over me like a warm shower. Although I was not on the same faith journey as she, her words resonated in my soul. They awakened something from my childhood that felt real and right. I visited a few churches that summer, Methodist and Presbyterian, but they did not feel like home. That exploration, however, led me to Neshoba’s door, which is a wonderful ending to that chapter of my life, and the beginning of another.

One of the meditations in "Amazing Grace" is titled, "Inheritance: What Religion Were You Raised In And What Religion Are You Now?" in which Norris recalls a panel discussion she chaired at a literary gathering. Her chosen topic generated high emotion, with some participants expressing anger, while others communicated to her that the topic was simply too painful to discuss.

"…I had long claimed to be "spiritual but not religious," a distinction that no doubt reflects my secular education. Long before I had entered Bennington College, that bastion of John Deweyism, I had soaked up his notion that the educated person is religious, but against religions…
I could understand their wariness; at base it reflected a deeply held and justifiable distrust of institutionalized religions, which at least in the twentieth century have not been particularly welcoming to artists.
I spoke of my surprise at finding myself attending church after twenty years away. In returning to Christian worship, and a worshipping community, I sensed that I was engaged with my inheritance in ways that I had yet to fathom."

Later in the essay, she writes words that resonated so strongly with me during that difficult time in my life. As I reread them yesterday, they still light a spark inside me. Norris writes:

"There is a vast difference between blindly running away from old "nothings," and running with mature awareness toward something new. The best aspects of the religious openness in our culture are exemplified in the wealth of literature that stems from converts to Buddhism…The worst might be seen as an all-American shallowness, a temptation to take the quick and easy way out of any dilemma that threatens to last awhile. It has forced people whose religions have become trendy in our time, American Indians and Buddhist monks among them, to grow adept at sorting out people who have an adult grasp of their own religious traditions and are seeking interfaith dialogue from those who are trying to escape their own inheritance by simply appropriating someone else’s. Indian tribes are suing to keep New Age shamans from practicing on their ancestral holy sites, and defining as ‘sacred theft’ the sale of Indian names by entrepreneurs… A young man I know was stunned when he went to Thailand and tried to join a Buddhist monastery. Go back home and become a Christian monk first, they told him, learn your own tradition."

Even the Dalai Lama, when asked by an American reporter what advice he would give Americans who want to become Buddhists, said, "Don’t bother. Learn from Buddhism, if that’s good for you. But do it as a Christian, a Jew, or whatever you are. And be a good friend to us."
What do those words mean, to us, as Unitarian Universalists? With few exceptions, you, the people in this room, are in this faith by choice, not by birth. This religion of ours is not our heritage.

But what is our heritage? Do we adopt the colorful heritage of our merged faiths? The intellectual Unitarians and the inclusive Universalists? Do we honor our individual religious heritages?

That goes back to the beginning. To Sunday School. While we, the adults in the congregation, mostly chose this faith, our children did not. They’re the second generation. And it is our duty to give them a heritage. It is our duty to teach them about the Unitarian and Universalist "canon of saints" who came before us. It is our duty to teach them the old stories which began our faith. It is also our duty to teach them the whole story, which includes Christianity, which is the history of both Unitarianism and Universalism. To gloss over that history, and the living faiths that built that history, is to bury our heads in the sand.

The Unitarians and Universalists often exemplified the teachings of Jesus. Looking at historical Unitarians and Universalists, as well as the Unitarian Universalists of today, we see social reformers tackle such issues as capital punishment, the abolition of slavery, the education of people with mental retardation, prison reform, women’s rights, the Civil Rights movement, same-sex marriage, and our nation’s involvement in war. In looking at our denomination’s good works, our stance on those, and other issues, I find it amusing to ask myself, "What would Jesus do?"

Because, truly, I think he’d be on our side.


laura said...

I rambled on and on over on my blog about your sermon. ::smile:: You really got me thinking, and that got me writing, and now there is a big ol' treatise over there.

There's also a big pic of you on Sunday's entry. ::smooches:: You looked so cute!

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