Sunday, May 13 – “Why Be a Congregation?”

Opening Words
Carl Jung give us one way of thinking about churches: “The church is made for the inferior man, and inasmuch as we are all inferior, we need a church. It is a very good thing. So the wise man will never disturb it. He will say: ‘Thank God that we have a church, for it would be a terrible hell if all those animals got loose’.”
I don’t usually say much to introduce the Offering. It’s sort of self-explanatory: If you’d like to contribute to this institution, we’re going to collect money now. But in a service that is self-consciously about being a congregation, the offering deserves a little thought. Because when you decide how much to give, one of the things you’re assessing is what kind of relationship you have with this church, and what kind of relationship you want to have.

Personally, through the years I’ve had four very different relationships with the UU churches I’ve belonged to, and they led to four different ways of thinking about giving. In the beginning, I was a fellow traveler and I just wanted to pay my way, to make a fair contribution in exchange for the services I received. Later on, I thought of the church as a good cause that I support, like public radio. I like the idea of there being a Unitarian church in my town, so I support it – not just for myself, but for the community. Eventually, though, I began to take ownership of the church and identify with it. I want it to be a good church and do good things, precisely because it is my church. It’s like when homeowners stop evaluating improvements according to how they affect resale value, and instead start asking themselves what kind of place they want their home to be. So what kind of place do I want my church to be? And more recently, I think my relationship has started to transition again. A church community is one of the few places in life where you can hope to leave a mark, hope to build things and establish things that go on past your lifetime.

So as the basket comes around, ask yourself what kind of relationship you’re trying to support. Are you paying your way? Supporting a community institution? Identifying with this church as your own? Or trying to make a mark that will outlive you?

In spite of how it sometimes appears, Unitarian Universalism is a religion of faith. Not necessarily faith in some perfect world after death. Not necessarily faith in an all-powerful God who makes our stories come out right. Not even necessarily faith in human progress.

But we do have faith that the potential for human goodness is far more widespread than it often appears. That flame you feel inside yourself, that desire to live in a more just and compassionate world, that willingness to make an effort and take some chances to help bring that world about – it also burns inside other people, some in this room, some far away, and some that you would never, ever suspect.

The reading is from the essay “The Tilted Metronome” by Ian Carroll. I know Ian because we belong to the same congregation in Bedford, Massachusetts.

One advantage you get from belonging to a congregation and seeing the same people over and over again, is that ideas bounce back and forth. If you put something out there, somebody might improve it and give it back to you.

A few years ago I gave a talk where I compared a healthy spiritual life to a pendulum that swings back and forth between action and contemplation. One is not better than the other; they’re parts of a whole: We do inner work; we do outer work.

About a year ago, Ian took that metaphor and changed it a little. Being a musician, he turned my pendulum into a metronome. And he observed that if you put a metronome on a tilted surface, one side of the cycle is longer than the other: tiiiick-tock, tiiick-tock.

He used that image to represent the idea that we all have natural inclinations that make us more comfortable on one side of the spectrum than the other, and yet we still need both to be complete. Ian has always experienced himself primarily as a contemplative person, but as he looks at the current situation in the world, he is feeling the need to enter an active phase. And he closes with this lovely vision of how the members of a congregation balance each other.

The week after the election, yes the one that ushered Donald Trump into the presidency, Rev. John spoke of the urgency of this moment in history, and of the need to immerse ourselves more deeply in beauty, art, nature, and creativity. But he also spoke of the need to be outraged, to protest, to fight for justice with greater intensity than ever before. Not surprisingly, I initially gravitated towards his encouragement to find more quiet and solace in our lives. That’s what I need, I thought. The more I’ve considered his words, though, the more I’ve realized I need to respond to his exhortation to act.

I’m certain that others in the pews that day had the opposite reaction to me, and felt their hearts leap at the call to action. But like me, they too will feel, in time, their pendulums swinging the other way. If you’re one of those people, and you feel the need to take a step back, to regroup for a little while, there might be a vacant seat up in the rear of the balcony. Because I’ll be in a pew near the front. . . . I will always be a listener first and foremost. That’s how I feel most comfortable. Tiiiick, tock, tiiiick, tock, is the sound my metronome -my tilted metronome-makes. If you are a doer, yours may make quite a different sound.

In this healthy, spirited community, we honor both. But the collective, beautiful weight of this congregation also challenges us, subtly shifting the ground on which we stand, altering the tilt of our metronomes. And so too does the ominous gravity of the present era.

Now is a time for us all to seek comfort, but more importantly, to embrace discomfort as well. That’s precisely why I’ll be sitting near the front of our Sanctuary, and it’s also why you might drift to the back, for a time.

There is a chorus of pendulums in motion around us, and one inside each of us, all swinging between their poles. Listen-can you hear them? From contemplation to action. From outer work to inner work. You protest, and I listen. I rise up, and you observe. Together we will make ourselves, and our world, better.

As individuals and as a community, in this historic moment, we need to find quiet. And we will make noise.

Why Be a Congregation?
Do you ever wonder why we’re all here?

I don’t mean that in the philosophical sense of “Why were we born?” or “Why does the Universe exist?” but in the very immediate sense of “Why do the people that we are gather together in this place?” Why is there a Unitarian church in Quincy? And whatever role you play in it – whether you’re visiting this morning for the first time or you’ve been a pillar of the congregation for the last fifty years – why do you do it?

Your friends in other religions are probably mystified by it. Because their faiths provide some very simple and compelling reasons for people to belong to churches and attend them faithfully. But none of those reasons apply to you.

When I was growing up at St. James Lutheran over on Jefferson Street, I was taught that God had commanded my attendance: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” My Catholic neighbors had an even stronger reason: Their relationship with God and their place in Heaven depended on rituals that could only be performed in a Catholic church. A lot of sects teach that it is vitally important to believe the correct dogmas. And how are you going to know what those are unless some authority stands in a pulpit and tells you? I used to picture Judgment Day as an oral exam where I might have to explain some difficult point of theology. So I figured I’d better come to church and listen closely. Some religions teach that there is a cosmic battle going on between Good and Evil, and joining a church is how you pick a side. By the way, I have some bad news for you about the side they think we’ve picked. In fact, none of those reasons explain why Unitarian Universalists belong to congregations and attend churches.

Universalists believe that everyone is already going to Heaven, no matter what they believe or where they spend their Sunday mornings. A lot other UUs don’t have much to say about the afterlife. If we believe in it at all, we know so little about it that we can’t even guess how you might improve your prospects. So if it turns out there is a Judgment Day, and we get points for being here this morning, I will be as surprised as anybody.

As for dogma, the person in the pulpit – today it’s me, next week it might be you. There’s no particular authority here. If Judgment Day is an oral exam, and something you believe turns out to be wrong, I don’t think that claiming you heard it from me is going help.

But if your religious friends are mystified, your secular friends are every bit as puzzled. A lot of them see churches as traps, as parasitical institutions that siphon off your time and money and energy for their own purposes. At best, they might look on churches as Jung did in that quote I opened with: as a way to keep the masses under control. Your secular friends may have struggled for years to get free of the churches they were born into. And yet you, who seem to understand why they had to escape, have walked right back into a church under your own power. Why did you do that? I think that challenge from the secular side is why we sometimes try to sell Unitarianism not for what it does, but for what it doesn’t do: It doesn’t ask you to check your brain at the door. It doesn’t make you feel guilty for asking questions or having doubts. It doesn’t dogmatize some pre-scientific cosmology or Bronze Age social prejudices. It doesn’t set a clergy in authority over you. It doesn’t insist that you recite a creed you don’t really believe.

For me personally, the most important thing a Unitarian church doesn’t do is throw you out if your search for truth and meaning goes in some unexpected direction. One thing I don’t missabout being a teen-age Lutheran was the constant sense of intellectual trepidation I felt. I had to be careful what I read, what I watched, what I thought about too hard. Because if the world started to make sense to me in some new way, then I might become an outcast. And if some new insight was bubbling up inside me, I didn’t dare show anybody that excitement, because it might convince them that I don’t belong any more.

All of our we-don’t-do-that pitches for Unitarianism get summed up in a probably apocryphal story about Fanny Holmes, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Supposedly, one of Oliver’s clerks, knew that the judge wasn’t particularly religious, and so he was surprised to discover that the Holmes household was Unitarian.

“Well,” Fanny explained, “we’re from Boston. In Boston you have to be something. And Unitarian is as near nothing as you can get.”

That explanation made a certain amount of sense a hundred years ago, but it really doesn’t any more. Because today, you don’t have to be something. If you’re looking for a religion that’s near nothing, you can pick nothing. A lot of people do, and more all the time. The Pew Research Center says that in 2014, 23% of Americans considered themselves religiously unaffiliated. That was up sharply from 16% in 2007. Even the people who identify with a religion don’t necessarily belong to any local congregation. In rough numbers, about a thousand American congregations affiliate with the UUA, accounting for about 200,000 individuals. But when pollsters ask people about their religions they wind up estimating that about 600,000 Americans are Unitarian Universalists.

As you might imagine, that makes for some head-scratching at the UUA. Think about it: We could triple the size of every UU congregation in the country without converting anybody. All we’d have to do is sign up all the people who already would tell a pollster that they’re UUs. Those missing 400,000 are the dark matter in our religious universe. Nobody’s really sure who they are. Some are probably young adults who grew up UU, and never revolted against it, but didn’t bother to find a church of their own after they left home. Others might be older people who moved away from a church when they retired, and didn’t bother to find a new one in Florida or Arizona or wherever they went. Some are probably people who have heard of Unitarian Universalism and agree with it philosophically, but they’re just not joiners. Like Kurt Vonnegut, for example. When he gave the Ware Lecture at General Assembly in 1984, he said, “In order not to seem a spiritual quadriplegic to strangers trying to get a fix on me, I sometimes say I’m a Unitarian Universalist.” But as far as I can tell, he never signed anybody’s membership book.

I once made a project out of verifying one of those lists of “Famous UUs” you sometimes see on the internet. Dr. Seuss was a tough case to decide. He certainly would have fit in. I found a lot of resonances, a lot of very UU-sounding statements, but no specific congregation that claimed him. Maybe he just wasn’t a joiner. A lot people aren’t. And why should they be? Like Fanny Holmes’ “You have to be something”, many arguments for joining don’t make sense any more. If you’re looking for intellectual stimulation, you could spend your Sunday morning reading The New York Times, or watching one of the news talk shows, or listening to a TED talk on YouTube. Some UU churches even post their services on YouTube. You can watch at home, on your own schedule. You don’t have to get out and rub shoulders with other people.

And that points out the first, fairly obvious, answer to the question of why people attend and why they join: You come to church because you want to be in the physical presence of other people. That’s not a cost, it’s a benefit. And you join because you want to be together with some of the same people over and over again, to recognize them and be recognized by them. There are a whole bunch of reasons you might want that, but the catch-all term for them is community. People come to UU churches looking for community. Sometimes community is nothing more complicated than just looking for friends. Critics might judge that motive a little lightweight compared to saving your immortal soul or joining a side in the great cosmic battle. But personally, I’m not in a position to look down on it.

One of the things you may or may not know about me and Deb is that we like kids, but fairly early in our marriage we decided not to have any of our own. One reason that worked for us is that some of the friends we made when we joined our first UU church did have kids, and they were happy to let us share them from time to time. So that’s how I went trick-or-treating and saw T-ball games and dance recitals. We had the tradition with one family that we’d sleep over on Christmas Eve, so that in the morning we could be up in time to watch the kids tear into their presents. Another family eventually moved away, but they let us borrow their daughter for a week every summer. One year we took her to Chicago. I remember waiting in line outside a bookstore on Michigan Avenue until midnight, when they started selling the new Harry Potter novel. The next day we took turns reading it out loud to each other on the El.

When Deb was fighting cancer and I dropped everything to deal with it, a lot of those same friends were always buzzing in the background, making sure I was taken care of too. When I think about the people that I expect to be friends with for the rest of my life, a pretty large majority of them are people that I met in UU churches. If those relationships were all I’d ever gotten out of Unitarian Universalism, I think it would still have been a pretty good deal.

And that also explains how I come to be here today.

Back in the early 2000s, I was in town visiting Mom and Dad. And I was doing what I always do when I’m in Quincy, which is walk. I’ve walked all over this town: the parks, the riverfront, downtown, the old mansions district south of Maine, the new mansions district east of 24th. For somebody who moved away 40 years ago, I know Quincy pretty well. So as I was walking, I had a thought: My parents were just about the only people I still saw in Quincy, and eventually they were going to die. When they did, I realized,I would probably never come back here. When you live in New England, you never just find yourself in Quincy. It’s not on your way to anywhere. You don’t change planes here. You never say, “Oh, while I’m doing X, I’ll just bop over to Quincy.” So I could see the day coming when I would leave Quincy and never come back. And that seemed sad to me. Try as I might, I could only imagine one way out of it: I was going to have to build a new network of Quincy friends, find a community for myself here that wasn’t centered on my parents. Where could I possibly do that? Well, I thought, Quincy does have a Unitarian church.

That worked out pretty well.

A few years later my parents started their steep decline. First my mother died, and then my father, and then I had an estate to settle. For several years I was spending quite a bit more time here than I had in decades. And through all that, it was really wonderful, both practically and psychologically, to have this supportive community around me.

Even so, the first time I came back after the house sold, I wondered how I would feel. Maybe I’d wander around town wondering what I was doing here. But I didn’t. It’s been five years now, and I’m still coming back.

That was a somewhat longwinded way of making a point: If your purpose in being here is nothing deeper or more complicated than just that you need more people in your life, I get that. But at the same time, I think that there’s a reason why that works: A Unitarian Universalist congregation is more than just a place where a lot of nice people hang out. It’s a community of shared values. I think our UU friends welcomed us into their children’s lives not just because they liked us, but because they knew that we also were committed to the values they wanted their children to learn. When I reached out to this congregation, in part you responded because you’re generous, hospitable people. But also I think you recognized, even as we were just meeting each other, that we share something deep. It’s no small thing to carry in your imagination the vision of a world where the UU Principles can be taken for granted. Where of course all people have worth and dignity, of course we practice justice and compassion, of course we all nurture the interdependent


As a description of how the world is, it’s pretty naive. Even we don’t always live that way. But as a vision of what could be, of what we could work towards and make happen, it’s powerful. Something else happens when you take seriously the distance between the world we live in and the world we hope for. If you think of yourself as just one person, alone, it’s overwhelming. Justice, democracy, the search for truth – what can I, by myself, do to bring any of that into reality? If the Unitarian Universalist vision is going to be anything more than just a pleasant daydream, we need allies. We need each other.

You know where that really came home to me? Here, in this room. I was leading the service on the second Sunday in November, 2016. Maybe you remember what was going on around that time.

I don’t want to try to speak for all Unitarians – I’m taking advantage of that lack-of-authority-in-the-pulpit thing I mentioned a few minutes ago. But to me personally, the 2016 campaign felt like a continuous assault on my values and on what I think of as Unitarian Universalist values.

Day after day, I would hear that climate science is some kind of sinister conspiracy, that women often lie about sexual assault, that there is no racism worth talking about in America any more, that the international system in which America has 5% of the world’s population but consumes 25% of its resources – that system is actually rigged against us. When Mexicans come into this country and do our dirty jobs for less than minimum wage, they are exploiting us. When I can buy inexpensive shirts at Walmart because people in Bangladesh are so desperate that they work in factories that could collapse on them at any time, and sometimes do, killing hundreds – that’s them taking advantage of me. Rather than encouraging Americans to see each other’s worth and dignity, we were told to fear and resent anyone who is different from us. If we’re native-born, we should fear immigrants. If we’re in an opposite-sex marriage, we should resent same-sex couples getting the same rights we have. If we’re from a Christian or Jewish background, we should fear Muslims. If we’re white, we should fear blacks, and be grateful that police all over the country are so willing to shoot them down if they seem to be getting out of line.

For months, I had stayed calm by believing that America wasn’t really like that. These kinds of views came from a fringe group, a tiny minority. And then, they won. Suddenly, everything I had believed about my country and my fellow citizens seemed to be wrong.

If that’s how I felt up in New England, I can only imagine what it was like here. In the professional-class Boston suburbs, we talked abstractly about the anger of the white working class. Here, you must have been looking at the neighbors and wondering how these could be the same people you’ve lived next to all these years. I felt challenged, but you were surrounded. My memory of that Sunday isn’t that you came to hang around with some nice people, or even to hear an interesting talk. I think you needed to be together. You needed to look into each other’s eyes and see some hope and some courage.

That morning we did the same responsive reading we did to start this service. I wanted you to hear yourselves and hear each other proclaim what Unitarian Universalists stand for. In that time and place, it felt like a radical act. It felt like the beginning of resistance.

And that, I believe, is also why we join. Because if I am alone, it is easy to become intimidated. It is easy to start thinking of UU values as just some funny ideas I have, that maybe I shouldn’t talk about too loudly. If I am alone, it is easy to fall into despair, to think “I used to have these visions of a better world, but it didn’t happen. What was I thinking? “I used to try to change things, but wasn’t that silly? I’m just one person. Why did I imagine that my thoughts, my beliefs, and my values should matter to anybody?”

So yeah, it’s great to have friends. It’s good to have a pleasant place to go on a Sunday morning. It’s nice if somebody will provide a few interesting ideas to discuss over coffee. But there’s a deeper reason to be a congregation.

We come together to hold each other up through difficult times. On days when you are feeling intimidated, you can be with people who have courage. When you feel yourself slipping into despair, you can look into the eyes of people who still have hope.

Maybe today I do that for you. Maybe tomorrow you do it for me. We join together because we are stronger that way.

We need each other.

Closing Words
The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.

It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Muder, Doug 2018. Why Be a Congregation?, /talks/20180513.shtml (accessed July 29, 2018).

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