"Taking Refuge”

The Rev. Barbara Merritt

The Berry Street Essay,2004

 

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Long Beach, California

June 24, 2004

 

 

It is an enormous privilege to address you, my colleagues, upon the occasion of the Berry Street Essay. I attended my first Berry Street in Seattle, in 1970, when I was a senior in college. Even at that tender age, and for most every year thereafter, a part of me has looked up at the minister in front and asked, " I wonder what I would say?” I, like many of you, have spent a lot of my life thinking that standing up front is a good place to be. Being in the pulpit, or at the podium, often gives me a feeling of power and security; kind of a "Barbara upgrade”, a place to speak where I can appear to be more articulate, better dressed, more confident, and less vulnerable.

A daunting assignment was given in 1820 to the one who would stand at this podium. The instructions were clear: "This conference is to be presented for the mutual improvement in pastoral duty and for the promotion of Christian truth and holiness.”[1] While most of us would now enlarge religious truth to encompass some humanist truth, and Jewish truth, and Buddhist truth, and pretty much any truth we stumble across, the mission is essentially unchanged. Rev. William Ellery Channing was more specific in 1821 about the purpose of this Conference; we ministers "need a bond of union, a means of intercourse, an opportunity of conference, not as yet engaged.” Here at the Berry Street Conference, Channing suggested that "wejoin our prayers and counsel…give warnings of dangers not generally apprehended, seek advice in difficulties”(so that) "much light, strength, animation and zeal would be spread through our body.”[2] Light, strength, animation and zeal…what a glorious charge!

And what terrible timing for such a charge; the end of June. This is not the week when the liberal clergy I know are especially receptive to light, strength, animation and zeal. Most of us are exhausted from the September to June worship year. We’ve faced increased demands and fewer resources. We’ve worried about budgets, and attendance, and volunteers, and long-range planning. We’ve buried some members of the church we really loved. We have been bewildered by the disappearance or resignations of a few members we thought we could count on. The state of the world often leaves us anxious and frustrated and/or discouraged. Like everyone else, we worry about things over which we have no control. And we are keenly aware of how daunting the assignment of religious leadership is in a time like this. Hopefully, throughout the church year we have had moments of vision and enthusiasm, glimpses of grace and healing. But by late June, many of us are just crawling to the finish line.

Perhaps one reason that Channing might have recommended "zeal, animation and strength” in 1820, was that he also recognized the spiritual poverty, and a lack of strong enthusiasm in his own circles. How ironic, that those of us who are regularly asked to "stand in front” are often all too aware that we cannot save ourselves, or anyone else. No matter what we say from the pulpit, we are only offering words to a world full of suffering. We can only bring our own finite compassion, limited understandings and narrow experience to the challenges of existence. I am wondering, "Does being a religious leader work for you? Does it work for me? When you imagine religious leadership, what role does grace play? What is it that you control?”

That is the subject I wish to consider with you today. Is being a strong minister, or a responsive minister, or an entertaining religious leader enough? I don’t mean, "Is the ministry a satisfying profession?” or, "Does it pay your electric bills?” or, "Is it an honorable way to make a living?” I am not asking whether the liberal ministry is an effective or helpful agency of change in people’s lives, or to the larger community. (My answer to all those questions is "Yes.”)

What I mean by my question is "Does our ministry work as a spiritual practice?” Does occupying a place where we get a lot of attention (both in the community ministry and the parish ministry) bring us closer to God, to truth, to reality? Does the great privilege of serving a religious community satisfy our deepest hungers, or bring us peace? Does the ministry bring us closer to contentment?

As ministers, we have people listen to us on a regular basis. We are allowed to share our research and our understanding, and our favorite poems and stories. The honor of preaching to ten people or to 500 people on a weekly basis, for years upon years, is a far greater honor than delivering an essay at a General Assembly. So I repeat my question to you, "Is the exercise of religious leadership a spiritual practice that is taking you where your heart and mind and soul want to go?”

Rumi was the mystic who first asked me to question the real benefits of being up front. He wrote, 800 years ago, some poetry that appears to be addressed directly to me…

"Oh you, who are more silent than night, how long will you seek a purchaser for your words? You who think you are excellent and preeminent, your own self is the only pupil that is faithful to you. How long will you set up a show on a public road? How long will you say, ‘I will conquer a whole world? I will make this world full of myself?’[3] If the world should be full with snow, from end to end, the glow of the sun would melt it in a single look.[4]

The world becomes your flatterer, for a few days, but that praise becomes a source of arrogance and deception to the soul.[5] Seek the applause and honor that does not die away, the splendor of a sun that does not sink…”[6]

As we become aware of the limitations of religious leadership, we may become moved to seek something more. When the confinement and the futility of our current circumstances become apparent, we search for a more spacious and nourishing reality. Perhaps late June is exactly the right time for ministers to consider where we are on our spiritual journey.

Which brings me to a story about another conference: The Conference of the Birds.[7] Written by a twelfth century Sufi named Attar, it is a classical Persian allegory about the journey of the soul from the realm of separation and selfishness, to union and joy in the Kingdom of God.

When you read what the fundamentalist extremists of Islam have to say about Attar, and other mystics and heretics in the Sufi tradition, it can make a Unitarian Universalist feel less alone. Attar has been called by the authoritarian wing of his own tradition, an infidel, a universalist, and an "antinomian.”[8] The inclusive teachings and stories of the Islamic mystics are often rejected by their fellow Moslems. And yet, 900 years after The Conference of the Birds was written, I encounter a story that describes very familiar territory.

This afternoon I offer to you a brief re-telling of the story, not as an exercise in Islamic scholarship, nor as a study in comparative religion. I read the story from a Unitarian Universalist perspective. I find within the narrative an astonishing grasp of the diversity of human experience and the unique and complex realities that are to be encountered on the way to God.

Only God is not necessarily the language of reverence that Attar uses to describe the journey’s end and goal. He writes that the reason we are alive, the purpose of human existence is to move towards the "habitation of the soul, the object of our real desire, the dwelling place of the heart, the seat of truth.”[9]

And so the story begins with an invitation. All the birds of the world are gathered and invited to make the journey to the palace of the king. This is described as the place of wholeness, and eternity, and love. The Hoopoe bird is chosen to lead the expedition because he himself has traveled to the king’s realm. He asks all the birds in the creation to accompany him. All are welcome. All are wanted. All are included. The Hoopoe is quite specific. While sincere religious seekers are especially invited to travel towards truth, so are the passionate and the self-involved. The fearful and the skeptics are particularly welcome. The insightful, and the depressed, and the unfaithful rebels, and the activists, and the escape artists are all urged to join the great exodus from complacency and delusion to the freedom and joy that will be experienced in the King’s palace. It is explicitly stated that each must travel in their own way. "To each atom there is a different door. And for each atom there is a different way which leads to the Mysterious Being.”[10]

The Hoopoe, the religious leader of this particular expedition, explains that the birds will need to leave behind their timidity, their self-conceit, and their lack of trust.[11] But other than that, he says, "Come as you are.” He encourages them to travel the distance that separates them from the generous King. He explains that only what is real and true can satisfy their hunger.

And then, like any good assembly of religious liberals, the excuses for inaction, passivity, and paralysis start pouring in. The nightingale doesn’t want to abandon the rose she loves in her very own garden. Why leave the beauty she has right now, right here, for some garden she has only heard described? The parrot complains that the realm of truth sounds like it is much too far away. The peacock contends that the good work he is currently accomplishing is sufficient. The duck announces that she is already holy enough. The partridge confesses that she is too weak to undertake a long and challenging adventure. The hawk proclaims that he already keeps the company of kings and rulers, and exercises all imaginable power and influence. The heron chimes in that his passion provides all the needed excitement. The owl is much too in love with the treasure he already possesses. And the sparrow, in sharing how frail and powerless she feels herself to be, suffers from what the Hoopoe describes as "a humility which is a form of pride.’[12]

The crippling condition of the birds is that they are in love with the status quo. They suffer from apathy and a lack of imagination. They cling to the small pleasures they now enjoy. They are birds without aspiration or understanding. Their consciousness is asleep. It is the Hoopoe that awakens them. How exactly he does that, is somewhat of a mystery.

But it has something to do with love. He speaks to them of a love and a truth that has been awaiting their return since the beginning of time. He reminds them of a powerful longing in their own hearts that nothing in their current circumstances has been able to satisfy. He tells them stories of such power and beauty that soon all the birds are "singed with a fiery desire to go on the journey.”[13] They were full of zeal and animation and enthusiasm and strength. And "at the setting out place, so great was the number of birds that flocked there, that they hid the moon…”[14]

And like all religious liberals everywhere, and apparently in every age and culture, even though they said that what they wanted was to move swiftly towards truth, they had a few questions. They had issues. They were apprehensive and fearful that they might not be properly equipped. They were more than willing to express their doubts and misgivings with their leader. (They wanted discussion, listening sessions, and opportunities for feedback.)

The Conference of the Birds is a marvelous testimony to the struggles and objections of a diverse flock. With infinite patience the Hoopoe listens to each individual objection. One bird wants to know exactly what lies ahead on the journey, even before they begin. Another bird is convinced that he doesn’t have the strength or courage for such a daunting pilgrimage. One is too afraid of death. Another bird suffers from depression and is lost in self-pity. The birds are not altogether lacking in self-awareness. Some admit that they are just too lazy and easily distracted. It is quite the assembled congregation. They want to move, and go the distance, but they cling to familiar ground. (Sounds like every congregation I’ve ever worked with…)

The last three birds approach the Hoopoe with openness and a sincere desire to learn. They plead, "Please teach us”[15]to accept what is real, what is true. Teach us to give up our desire to be in control, show us how to go forward with integrity and boldness and confidence...

But the Hoopoe isn’t especially impressed with this last crop of eager seekers either. While their speech reveals great faith, he wants them to know that the actual journey has nothing to do with how we put words together. He observes that "eloquence can be a form of boasting.”[16] He says that "pretentious verbiage[17] won’t get you very far.

This journey is not one of words. Instead it is a practical path of action. What is required is "a single sigh of love.”[18] And the purpose of the journey is not to describe or imagine spiritual wealth, but to experience it. If you wish to reach the Palace of the King, the Hoopoe explains, you have to go on the wings of love.

And for Attar, this 12th century Moslem, the kind of love that is required is the passionate and scandalous variety. The hundreds of stories that the Hoopoe tells to his flock of argumentative, skeptical, and lethargic birds are sometimes obscure, like a koan. All the stories are intended to help his audience to think in new ways. Attar addresses his straight-laced, authoritarian, rule-abiding orthodoxy, and says, the love of God is like the marriage between royalty and a slave: not an acceptable practice, back then. He says, to love truth is like a love affair between people of different faiths: unthinkable in that era. He says,to love what is eternally real, is like the love between homosexuals: a forbidden activity in 12th century Persia. Attar wrote that love has to be passionate. Spirituality requires breaking with all kinds of conventions.

My favorite teaching story in TheConference of the Birds occurs when the Hoopoe insists that his followers stop focusing on the faults of others. He doesn’t believe that anyone has the capacity to judge another’s spiritual condition. He tells the tale of a drunk.

This particular drunk has passed out in the gutter after a night of heavy drinking and carousing. A friend happens to pass by, and discovers this poor man, unconscious, lying by the side of the road. The friend takes pity, and finds a sack, puts the unconscious man in feet first, and then slips the man and the bag over his shoulder. On the way home another drunkard comes stumbling down the street, yelling and swearing, all the while being held up by a companion. At this loud commotion, the man whose head is hanging out of a sack, and who is being carried home, wakes up. He sees the other drunkard’s sad condition and says, critically, "Ah, unhappy man, in the future you should drink a few less glasses of wine. Then, you would be able to walk, as I do, free and alone.”

Attar comments. "Our own state is no different. We see faults in others, because we don’t know how to love. Because you yourself are blind, you see others as vicious, or depraved, or weak.”[19]

In The Conference of the Birds, love is the remedy for all ills. Only love has the power to release us from the narrow confinement of self-absorption, vanity, and delusion. Only love can offer us the incentive and the courage to set out on a long and difficult journey. Attar describes the trip. "Many lands and seas are on the way. Do not imagine that the journey is short. One must have the heart of a lion to follow this unusual road, for it is very long and the sea is deep. One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping…as for me, I shall be happy to discover even a trace of the King…[20] No travelers have seen the limit of this journey, neither have they found a remedy for love…if you continue on your way always advancing, you will hear until eternity the cry: ‘go still further.’”[21]

In Attar’s spiritual geography, there are seven valleys to cross. The last two valleys are more like deserts. One is called the valley of "astonishment, amazement and bewilderment.”[22] Here is where you learn to say, "I know nothing. I understand nothing. I know that I am in love, but I don’t know with whom.”[23]And the last valley before you reach the Palace of the King is the valley of spiritual poverty, described as a place where you feel "distracted and forgetful, oblivious and deprived.”[24] This is where the ego, the small self must die.

Of the thousand birds that set out on the quest, only thirty travel all the way to the King. And the thirty that do make it to the palace are in pretty bad shape. They are weary and have lost all their feathers.[25] But as Attar observes, " When you see a poor man in a tattered coat, remember that it is his coat that is poor, and not the man himself.”[26]They have used up all their strength and courage and passion. As far as they are concerned, there is nothing left of them. They seek refuge in the King’s court. They don’t have their beauty to offer, or their eloquence, or their wisdom. All they have to offer is their need.

The Conference of the Birds has a very happy ending. A miraculous transformation happens when the birds reach their destination. There they encounter one thousand suns and stars and moons, each more resplendent then the next, to light their way. All of their feathers grow back, an important detail to a bird. And not too surprisingly, the truth that they had risked their lives to find (the place of genuine refuge, the truth they had been so earnestly seeking) was located within their own hearts and minds and souls. The kingdom of God was to be found within their own being. Attar’s last words to his readers are, "I have described the way, now you must act.”[27]

The imagery that Attar uses to describe what it actually feels like to be on a spiritual journey resonates with my own experience. He captures both the enormous effort demanded, as well as the reality of one’s powerlessness. And this paradoxical description also rings true about the demands of ministry. We also need to have the heart of a lion. And most of us will know that terrible experience of standing in the pulpit, or at a hospital bedside, with no proverbial feathers at all, feeling utterly inadequate for the tasks of addressing tragedy, conflict and/or the limitations of human understanding. And still, we must act.

If anything, William Ellery Channing used even stronger language than Attar to describe the centrality of spirituality to our work. He wrote, again in the formation of the Berry Street Conference, "We exaggerate nothing when we speak of all human institutions, government, sciences, arts, public wealth, public property, of all the outward goods of life, and even of the progress of intellect and the development of genius, as inferior and comparatively unimportant concerns.” What was important to Channing was God and the eternal life of the spirit. He maintained that this was the ultimate source of "goodness, greatness, consolation and joy.”

Channing was clear about the kinds of actions he wanted religious liberals to take in his own day. Channing put enormous emphasis on the importance of individual strength. He wanted everyone to be operating at the top of their game. His was a call to self-determination and noble aspiration. He knew about the necessity for grace. He wrote that even the "best and most advanced Christians”[28] would need grace. But we were all supposed to strive to be the "best Christians” all of the time. His new and optimistic theology was an essential corrective to the then prevalent doctrine of original sin. In confronting the debilitating view that human beings were basically evil and/or sinful, depraved and damned, Channing provided a needed corrective. He opened people’s eyes to their innate worth and dignity.

But what happens when Channing’s religious philosophy of wide-eyed optimism becomes a new orthodoxy, an unquestioned paradigm? If your basic self-identity is as someone who is responsible for saving yourself, if your character can only be good, if your work can only be productive and successful, if your behavior must always be decisive, and stoically under control, what are you going to do with the part of reality that doesn’t conform to this idealized self-portrait?

My psychoanalyst asked me during a session, "What do Unitarian Universalists do with their hatred and their fear, their failure and their rage?” I replied quickly, "Oh that’s easy to answer. We don’t have any of those emotions! We’ve decided to be nice! We’ve decided to have good characters! We’re busy trying to right the wrongs of the world. We may regret that we don’t seem to be very successful at making the world a good, just and fair place. Nevertheless we are encouraged to remain cheerful and upbeat.”

Human beings are, of course, neither all bad nor all good. Unitarian Universalists are, like everyone else, a complicated mix of good and evil, strength and weakness. We can be radical reformers in one area, and we can be staunch defenders of the status quo in another. We are full of zeal and optimistic determination one moment, and then subject to feelings of hostility and discouragement in the next. We are complicated, conflicted people, like every other child of God. And conflicted, complicated people will, sooner or later come to grips with the truth that they need help, protection, and assistance. Are liberal ministers trained, professionally or spiritually, to recognize what brings people to become aware of their dependency? Do we know who in our midst is seeking refuge?

Judaism claims that the ones who need to seek refuge are those who, through circumstances beyond their control, have caused real harm and injury. In ancient Judaism, towns of refuge were established where a person, who had accidentally killed another human being, could go.[29] These cities were places of mercy, where the guilty could escape the harsh law of blood vengeance. People who lived in these towns of refuge knew that both their own goodness and their neighbor’s innocence were relative.[30]

The Christian tradition is often eloquent about the refuge that a merciful and infinitely loving God offers to struggling souls. The parable of the Prodigal Son is a classic story of an independent and arrogant young man finally needing to take refuge with a compassionate and forgiving father. Few, if any, who set out on ambitious adventures meet with unqualified success. The Prodigal son is a story for all of us who find that we have wasted our resources and have lost our way.

But for a vivid image of what it means to possess virtually no zeal, no enthusiasm, and very few good works, I turn to St. Julian of Norwich. She describes the spiritual assignment: to go forth into the world, to serve truth and your neighbor, to love God with all your heart and mind and soul. And your intentions are ever so good. Believing that there is love at the heart of creation, the disciple sees" the Lord, (who) looks on his servant very lovingly, and sweetly and mildly. God sends him to a place…. Not only does the servant go, but he dashes off and runs at great speed, loving to do his Lord’s will. And soon he falls into a dell and is greatly injured; and then he groans and moans and tosses and writhes, but he cannot rise, or help himself in any way. And of all this the greatest hurt I saw him in, was the lack of consolation, for he could not even turn his face to look on his loving Lord.”[31] At least according to St. Julian, taking refuge is the only option for those of us who are not even able to look in the right direction, let alone serve as we intend to serve. Those of us who fall face down in the mud, so hard and so often that we sometimes can’t even lift our heads, are going to need help, and lots of it.

Buddhism is quite specific that taking refuge is not for those seeking to escape, or wishing to withdraw from society, or those who are wanting to run away. Trungpa Rimpoche writes  that "taking refuge is about refusing to stay centered in your own small self and your very limited concepts.”[32] He says it is "a letting go and opening to all situations, and all emotions, and all people.[33] When a Buddhist "takes refuge” in the "three jewels,” or in the "three treasures,” they are being asked to: (1) take refuge in the Buddha (the teacher); to (2) take refuge in the dharma (the teachings); and to (3) take refuge in the sangat (the religious community.) The Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron describes the practice of taking refuge as "finding the spaciousness that is capable of holding up your life.”[34]

But it is Lao Tzu who comes closest to my own heart when he contrasts those who believe they are in control with those of us who are painfully aware that we are not in control. He writes in the Tao,

"Other people have what they need, enough and more. I alone possess nothing, am abandoned and destitute. I alone drift about, like someone without a home.

Other people are bright. I alone am dark and murky.

Other people are sharp and confident and clever. I alone am dull.

Other people have a purpose. I alone don’t know. I must go to the nurturing Mother.”[35]

In all world religions, and in every mystical tradition, there is a balance: an equilibrium between effort and grace, an acknowledged tension between the responsibility of an individual to take action and every soul’s clear need for assistance. Unitarian Universalists have historically been exceptionally gifted in articulating that aspect of the human experience that flows out of our inherent worth, strength, independence, and resourcefulness. But we have hardly begun to develop a vocabulary of dependence, where we can give full expression to our helplessness, our ignorance, and our spiritual poverty. Once we are able to speak about our need, we still have to be able to go to those places where we might find the protection, and the consolation, and the help that we require.

Sometimes I suspect that admitting to the universal experience of powerlessness has almost become a heresy to Unitarian Universalists. We celebrate mostly empowerment and creativity and a mission of going "forward through the ages in unbroken lines”. What are we to do when we are overwhelmed by grief, or confronted with professional failure? What are we to do when we can’t control our own health, our own mental state, or even our own teenagers? Reality has all kinds of lessons of powerlessness to teach religious liberals. Where are we to go for safe refuge and genuine protection? Where are we to find the spaciousness that is capable of holding up our own complicated lives? Helplessness is not hopelessness. Can we develop appropriate ways for religious liberals to experience dependency?

And what about the dangers inherent in admitting that you need help? There are more than enough charlatans, and false prophets, who will exploit your need for their own purposes. Sometimes what looks like shelter is a trap. Sometimes what appears to be a safe harbor is merely a distraction from a voyage that we must complete. Admitting that you are in the market for assistance can make you feel especially vulnerable. How will we know what is trustworthy? Are there any actions we can take that will make it more likely that we will be able to take refuge in a power greater than our own limited concepts and selfish agendas?      Luckily, over the last 32 years, I have been doing a great deal of research on the subject of looking for reliable places of refuge in the practice of Unitarian Universalist ministry. Unluckily, I have spent too much of that time seeking refuge in some powerful delusions that have caused both me and the congregations I have served, real trouble and confusion. I wish I could report that I am utterly finished with three particular treacherous places of refuge. But sadly, I know that they can still attract and mislead me.

The names of my three false refuges are: idealization, congregational materialism, and abstractions of the holy. In describing how they attract and confound me, I will also describe what I am just beginning to see as alternatives, alternatives that are more nourishing to spiritual health, ministerial health, and congregational health.

Beginning with idealization. Idealization is a natural and an essential part of the religious imagination.[36] We all need people and principals to look up to. And then the trouble starts, I want my congregation to like and admire me. I want to like and admire them. Pretty soon we start announcing that we are all so bloody wonderful. And I want everyone to sense just how busy the ministers are, and how hard we work. The congregation (mostly) thinks that my associate, Tom Schade and I are extraordinary. And we think that the congregation is fabulous. Why, you’ll hardly find a more creative, talented, energized, and spiritually engaged congregation of Unitarian Universalists as you will at First Unitarian, Worcester! And the hope amidst all this happy horse-feathers is that all we really need to do is to put together a warm enough welcoming committee, and a clever enough pledge drive. The ministers will inspire and the choir will sing lovely anthems. And then the character of the church will be its own saving grace. Our own excellent efforts will bring about the Kingdom on Main Street. Unfortunately, I have worshipped at the altar of excellence too long. There is nothing wrong with excellence. In fact, it is rather a wonderful thing. But it won’t save your soul, (or your church).

When my youngest son was about 4 years old, we were driving down the road, with him sitting in a booster seat in the backseat of the car. For some reason or another (perhaps I had committed as egregious a sin as having denied him a candy bar before dinner) my little David decided to tell me what a great disappointment I was to him. He said that not only was I a miserable person, and a horrible mother, but in addition, (and here I’ll quote him directly) he said, "…and you give terrible sermons!” Apparently he had been listening in to the post mortems on the sermons when coming home from church on Sundays. He had already figured out that even though he didn’t know exactly what a sermon was, Mom obviously cared a great deal about what people thought of her sermons.

            Now listen to something even more disturbing. My instinctive reaction, my hair-trigger response to any criticism about the excellence of my preaching, was so automatic that my first thought about my little son’s comment was, "How would you know that I’m a terrible preacher? You’ve never heard me give a sermon!”

When what you worship is excellence (and admiration and favorable press) your job is to please everyone. Even little children. Even immature and angry adults. You must be able to meet everyone’s expectations for excellence, no matter how idiosyncratic or unreasonable or contradictory they might be.

One practical consequence of my collusion, my willingness to play the part of the idealized human being, occurred in the early days of my ministry, I tried to be especially nice to the most with-holding, and judgmental members of my parish. I understood it as my job to focus only on their good qualities. I idealized my own capacity to like everyone, and then, I idealized them. Then one day, I woke up and found that some of these highly critical people were now holding leadership positions on my governing board. And I had been the one cheering them on, and making them feel especially welcome!

Idealization is a deadly trap because it separates us from so much that is true. Lord knows, we have visionary and talented and compassionate people in Unitarian Universalist churches. And Lord knows, everyone of those great people is also a complicated and struggling soul, stumbling through their own delusions, projections, and fantasies. Ministers and laity alike. I am hopeful that one alternative to idealization is to live in "right relationship” where the inherent complexities and ambiguities of all human effort are openly acknowledged. As we become capable of seeing the ambivalence and the inner conflicts in ourselves, as well as in all those who walk through our doors, we will, hopefully, become more patient and more realistic in our expectations. We may even have a more accurate understanding of the limited, and yet important ways in which we might be called to serve. Idealization is replaced with a more grounded assessment of our own relatively small powers of influence, and our very finite capacities to change people, or congregational systems.

The second false refuge that has consistently led me astray, and still does, is in the persistence of a materialistic world view; particularly in the realm of statistics, budget projections, and ministry by numbers. I have come to call it "Avaricious Numerical Accounting.” I am well aware that the church is called to be faithful to truth and to God and to integrity. But where I too often focus my attention is in trying to make a good showing, statistically. I am not the only one among my colleagues who is counting the house, obsessed about membership numbers, concerned about how large the budget is getting in proportion to the annual giving, and keeping close track of Sunday morning attendance, as compared to last year.

I have even developed an informal equation. Here is how you, too, can compute your professional stature and your worth as a human being. Take the number of adults and children present in your sanctuary on any given Sunday, multiply by the number of advanced college degrees, divide by how many people are probably not coming to church next week, add how many are involved in small group ministry, subtract any families whose children have recently joined a traveling soccer league, multiple by the number who have increased their pledge, divide by the number who are sending their kids to college, or who are contemplating retirement in another city, and if the number you get isn’t quite good enough, you get to come back and count all over again next week. Believe me, it is possible to look out on your congregation and genuinely not see the hungry souls who are there…because you are too busy trying to figure out who isn’t there.

Beware: a church that is concentrating on assessing itself numerically may also start assessing individuals. Unwary visitors may receive a "New England Welcome.” A lay leader in my parish, David Rynick, coined this phrase. First Unitarian in Worcester has had 219 years to perfect this greeting. But just because your church is located outside the northeastern United States, don’t assume that you are immune. This virus is contagious and lurks in the "hard-drive of the inherited faith. A "New England Welcome” is less of a warm greeting, and more of a rapid assessment. This is an on-the-spot evaluation which must answer such questions as, "Where are you from? Where do you work? Are you an accomplished professional like the rest of us? Are you willing to volunteer at the tag sale, or to teach Sunday School?” Emotionally, the "New England Welcome” is cool, and it is all about meeting certain standards.

There are spiritual alternatives to Avaricious Numerical Accounting. Interim ministers of many denominations are currently developing some radically new ways of measuring the health and vitality of a congregation.[37] These new instruments for assessment may offer our churches a more spacious way of understanding our effectiveness.

The first measurement asks a very significant question. "How many meaningful conversations can any given member of your church have with other members of the parish?” We need to know who experiences us as a compassionate community where substantive relationships thrive, and who doesn’t. We need to do everything possible to intentionally facilitate strong lateral relationships in the church. If and when our congregations increase an individual’s chance of finding good companions, then the subsequent friendships will strengthen bonds within the church, and be a strong foundation for activism within the larger community.

A second measurement the interim ministers takes is, "How many in your religious community are able to speak freely of their spiritual aspirations, their practices and their struggles?” If you can’t talk about what you ultimately believe is true in church, then something is amiss.

There are many other criteria by which you could measure the responsiveness and the resiliency of your faith community. "How are strangers welcomed into our midst?” (Jesus taught that the spiritual practice of hospitality and kindness was more important than any dogma or doctrine or belief.) "How skillfully can the community express gratitude, for an individual’s contribution of time, money, or expertise?” Another mark of a healthy congregation would be a willingness toproblem solve. How wonderful it is when our religious communities encourage us to step aside from self-righteous accusation and arrogance, and invite us to work patiently and cooperatively toward common goals. A congregation will be known by its actions in the world. We need to continually ask, "Who, outside of our church or fellowship, is benefiting because of the service and the refuge this spiritual community has offered?”

We don’t need to banish statisticians and bean counters. No matter how many profound conversations are going on, no matter how much spiritual and material assistance is being given and received, the heating bills still need to be paid, and I myself, am especially fond of staff being paid often and well… Institutions need institutional upkeep. But when religious leaders forget what a church is ultimately for, no institutionally impressive statistics will be able to compensate

            A religious community needs to be about the work of encouraging friendships and trustworthy relationships. The church can aspire to be a place where no child of God is shut out or excluded, silenced, marginalized or belittled. A congregation can be a gathering where complexities are recognized, and flawed human beings are able to strengthen their spiritual practices and to take better care of their neighbor. But I don’t think we ought to strive to be a righteous, idealized, utopian institution. The liberal church ought to be something better: a place where flesh and blood people of many beliefs and political stripes will find refuge and help.

The final quagmire of false refuge that I have pursued my entire life, to no good end, is an especially Unitarian Universalist sin. It is the delusion that the way to approach God, truth, or whatever you deem to be the holy of holies, is by being smart enough, insightful enough, wise enough, patient enough, and enthusiastic enough. Thus, having earned virtue and strength, we will be led into the pearly gates of professional success and spiritual progress. In other words, we can think, work, and imagine ourselves to be the people we wish to be. We want to drive the bus to the Palace of the King all by ourselves. By our own worthy efforts, by our own sterling character and animated zeal, we feel we should be able to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, and peace in our own souls.

I quote Annie Dillard, "We are never more deeply asleep at the switch, as when we fancy we control any switches at all.”[38]To which I would like to add an addendum, "We are never more professionally asleep in the conduct of our ministries as when we fancy that we are in control of ourselves, our churches, or our neighborhoods.”

I have been committed to an intensive meditation practice for the last 32 years. It was a friend of mine, a Black Baptist minister, Clarence Edwards, who had been meditating for twice as many years as I had, who taught me "my part” in the spiritual discipline. He said that every morning my assignment is to  "Get up. And sit down”. That is it. I am to get out of bed. I am to sit down in my meditation chair. On a good day, that is what I am able to do. No more. No less. I am not able, ultimately, to control my posture, my wandering mind, my bad attitude, my degree of devotion, my spiritual progress, or whether or not I am in the mood to meditate. My work is simply to get up, and then to sit down. Grace will have to do the rest.

And what is a liberal religious minister to do? What is our part in the grand scheme of things? I would again, take a minimalist approach, and describe the task this way. We are called to "step up, to pay attention, and then, to sit down.” We are fairly skilled at stepping up…we know how to be in the front of the room. We know many ways to encourage the gifts and ministries that Unitarian Universalists have to offer the world. We learn, over the years, how to pay attention, how to be awake to the needs and hungers of the souls who come to us for assistance and inspiration. Where I have found our practice to be consistently weak, where I find my own challenge, is in learning how to sit down, in a pew, in a sanctuary, in a place where we, ourselves, are open to receiving grace, protection and refuge. Religious leaders must take a Sabbath, not only once a week, but on a daily basis. If we don’t know how to take refuge in something larger than our own limited egos, how will it be possible for us to lead our congregations in the direction of help and shelter?

I believe that every minister needs to go to a place "spacious enough to hold up his or her life.”  These journeys will be unique and particular. To paraphrase Attar, "for each minister there is a different door which leads to the mysterious Being.” Yet even when you are given your own particular door, your own spiritual practice, the way ahead will probably not be easy to travel. It is not easy for me to sit down, to let go, to assume that grace will carry me. For too long, I have looked to my own efforts, my own small good works, my own competence. It is one thing to believe that there is an incomprehensible love at the center of the creation. It is quite another thing to confidently trust, to relax into, to lean on a strength and a grace beyond our understanding. When will we know that no matter the obstacles, or challenges or delays, each of us will one day reach the dwelling place of truth and the object of our heart’s desire? When will we confidently know that each of us will receive what we need to accomplish the work that we are called to perform?

I believe this journey will take at least a lifetime. It is almost guaranteed that we will fall flat on our faces in the mud, not once, but on a regular basis. Who knows how many feathers will be left on us, by the time we reach our destination? But by then it won’t matter. For as the Psalmist promises, "You will find refuge under the wings of God.” (Psalm 91)

And now I will sit down. Feeling blessed to be able to take my seat among wonderful colleagues. Grateful to take some refuge in the good fellowship of this Conference. Eager to hear the responses of my young and zealous colleagues, Sara and Victoria.

 

Endnotes


[1] article in, The Christian Disciple. 1820, p. 230.

[2] W. E. Channing, The Life of William Ellery Channing. AUA: Boston, 1904. p. 218-219.

[3] R. Nicholson (trans), The Mathnawi of Jalaluddin: Rumi. 8 vols. London: Luzac, 1925-40. Vol. 5, line 3189.

[4]ibid., Vol. 1, line 540.

[5]ibid., line 1863.

[6]ibid., Vol. 4, line 1659.

[7] C. S. Nott (trans) 1954, The Conference of the Birds, A Sufi Fable by Farid ud-Din Attar. Shambula: Berkeley, 1971.

[8] ibid., p. 13-27.

[9]ibid., p. 18.

[10] ibid., p. 4.

[11] ibid., p. 12.

[12]ibid., p. 28.

[13]ibid., p. 13.

[14]ibid., p. 45.

[15]ibid., p. 44.

[16]ibid., p. 28.

[17]ibid., p. 83.

[18]ibid., p. 96.

[19]ibid., p. 90.

[20]ibid., p. 13.

[21]ibid., p. 112.

[22]ibid., p. 119.

[23]ibid., p. 119.

[24]ibid., p. 123.

[25]ibid., p. 129.

[26] M. Bayat and M. A. Jamnia, Tales from the Land of the Sufis, Fariduddin Attar: The Divinely Inspired Story teller. Shambhala: Boston & London, 1994. p. 57.

[27] F. Attar, The Conference of the Birds, D. Davis and A. Darbandi (trans.). Penguin: London, 1984. p. 229.

[28] W. E. Channing, The Works of William E. Channing, D.D. AUA: Boston, 1888. p. 404

[29]ibid., p. 219.

[30] E. Fox, The Five Books of Moses .Schocken Books Inc.: New York, 1995. p. 830.

[31] L. Kushner and D. Mamet, Five Cities of Refuge. Schocken Books Inc.: New York, 2003. p. 129-30.

[32] C. L. Flinders, Ending Grace. Harper: San Francisco, 1993. p. 92.

[33] P. Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape. Shambhala: Boston, 2001. p. 73.

[34]ibid., p. 72-3.

[35] L. Tzu, Tao Te Ching, D. Hilton (trans.). Counterpoint: New York, 2000. p. 22-3.

[36] J. Jones, Terror and Transformation. Brunner-Routledge: East Sussex, 2002. chap. 5-6.

[37] C. Baker, Rev., The Interim Minister: Mirror to Ministry. Unpublished reflection delivered at the Massachusetts Convention of Congregational Ministers: Wellesley Hills, MA. May 13, 2004.

[38] A. Dillard, Holy the Firm. Harper Collins: NY, 1984. p. 64.

 

Bibliography

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