Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Liberal Alternatives

I started this post some weeks back as a half-baked rumination by a non-clergy-person in response to a couple of posts by Christine Robinson. In the first of those, she suggests that
Most UU churches, it seems to me, benefit from being much more forthcoming about their denominational label.
Anyway, my post sat around in the drafts for some time, and now comes news that UU membership in the U.S. is continuing to contract. This offers what we in the news business call "a news peg" for moving this particular post forward.

I want to add one more wrinkle to the discussion.

Today people looking for a liberal, eclectic, non-doctrinal (or at least less-doctrinal) and progressive church experience may have choices besides joining a Unitarian Universalist church. They aren't everywhere, but the fact that they exist at all is intriguing to me.

They also exist on a spectrum.

At one end of that spectrum is a place like DairyStateMom's church. On the surface, it's a highly traditional Presbyterian church that is explicitly Christian in its practice and belief.

Yet parishioners with whom I've talked there talk quite openly about their own "spiritual journey" and an openness to "individual belief" there; the church institutionally is at the forefront of the efforts to open up Presbyterian ordination standards; and it is there that I've been introduced to the work of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, whose take on Jesus is certainly a radical departure from Christian orthodoxy.

The Easter sermon I heard there a few Sundays ago never sought to frame the resurrection in terms that had to be taken literally. And a year ago, the senior pastor focused her Easter sermon on Emily Dickinson's life story and her poem, "Hope is a Thing with Feathers."

I have said that, had I stumbled into a church like hers 30 years ago when I was unchurched and had not yet encountered Unitarian Universalism, I might very well have wound up joining it and never becoming a UU. Or, to put it slightly differently, if my 24-year-old self were to stumble into her church today, I might have found it comfortable enough to embrace.

Now, knowing all that I know now, I would find that at least a little bit regrettable, because I so value the much broader interfaith exposure I've gotten in UU churches.

One of the blogs listed down the side here is by Tennessee Presbyterian Minister John Shuck. As progressive and welcoming as DairyStateMom's church is, The Rev. Shuck's church is clearly further down at the left end of the spectrum, theologically and culturally, from hers. Except for the fact that its preaching is much more consistently centered on the life of Jesus, it would in fact come close to passing for a UU church, judging by its embrace of theological diversity and progressive social witness. If I found myself living in that part of the world, even as a UU, and it was closer than any UU church, I could see myself quite at home there.

Finally, there are across the country various progressive, often (but not always) non-denominational churches that while they primarily identify with Christianity, make it very clear that they welcome a wide range of belief and even non-belief. I haven't been to any of them in person but would happily go given the opportunity.

(Off the top of my head I'm aware of one in Wilmington, Delaware; in Florida [I think Miami], Evanston, Ill., and Grand Rapids, Mich. There's also a small Anglican group based in Milwaukee that operates in a similar vein, although to what extent it is an established church organization as opposed to just the vision of a few idiosyncratic organizers is not at all clear to me.)

It might be interesting to compile a comprehensive list of such places and map their location against the locations of existing UU congregations. I have no idea whether they tend to flourish where UU congregations are scarce, or if in fact they end up clustering in more or less the same places where there are UU churches as well, but filling some kind of felt need for some people that UU churches, for whatever reason, don't meet.

I don't think this is necessarily a zero-sum game. I am not saying these liberal alternatives keep UUism from growing or are some kind of "competition". And I am not saying that we should make our churches either more like or less like these other liberal alternatives. But in thinking about why UUism is shrinking rather than growing, it might be useful to see what insights we might gain from their presence.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Who Am I?

I thought Jacqueline Wolven raised some good questions in her post a few days ago, which I happened upon a few days later after taking a look at the weekly roundup of UU blogs.

This post isn't exactly a direct response to her questions, but it is inspired by them.

Up to now, I have run this blog semi-anonymously. At least for the foreseeable future, I expect to keep doing so.

"Semi," in that I've been upfront with various friends in and out of the blog-UU-sphere about my identity here. "Anonymous" in that I don't sign posts with my name and for the most part don't comment on other blogs except under the DSD identity.

So...why the secrecy at all?

The main reason is to separate what I write here from my public identity as a journalist. In that capacity I write for a variety of outlets, and I am not constrained from having a point of view. Nonetheless, I am inclined to believe I will feel a little freer about what I write here if it is not connected with my public journalistic self.

Now, a bit paradoxically, even in this semi-anonymous guise, I tend to be circumspect.

I publicly identify here the various churches with which I have an ongoing relationship: My own church, DairyStateMom's church, and my "church away from home" that I frequent when visiting family in the East.

For that reason -- and because my blogging ID here is only semi-anonymous -- I choose not to air dirty laundry (not that there really is any to air) about any of these places.

In other words, I have not chosen to use this space to work out personal differences I might have with one or another specific institution. I might speak more broadly, but leave it at that. In this regard I am following my instinct, but I bring it up to emphasize that my choice of a masked identity is not motivated by any desire to be more personal, particularly about criticism.

From time to time I think about casting the mask off entirely, and I think Jacqueline Wolven has worthwhile things to say about that approach. For now, however, I choose not to. I thought that it might be useful, for myself and for my two-and-a-half readers, to reflect on why.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Book Review: Proverbs of Ashes

Proverbs of Ashes, by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker

This book preceded by several years the Brock and Parker book Saving Paradise, which I read at about the time I started this blog.

Its central thesis is that the traditional atonement theology that emphasizes the suffering of Jesus on the Cross as a necessary redemption for humankind in fact sanctions abuse and violence, particularly against the oppressed.

As I've written here before, I have never put much stock in atonement theology. The church in which I grew up didn't stress it, and when I encountered it among some fundamentalist schoolmates, it seemed bizarre, wrongheaded, and even monstrous. Yet while I wasn't personally wounded by it, I developed a grim fascination with the belief system, a fascination that I've never really shaken.

Before I bought Proverbs of Ashes I had expected the book to be primarily theology, but it turns out it's mostly memoir laced with a theological exploration. The authors' accounts of their respective lives and the crises that led them to confront their own rejection of atonement theology are by turns harrowing and soothing, poignant and stark, but always boldly honest.

My takeaway message from it is that redemption isn't found in sacrifice but in connection and in self-respect. I get that, but, then what?

As moving and meaningful as I did find the book, I found myself wishing at the end for a more explicitly stated resolution, an alternative bumpersticker slogan that would state a progressive theology of Christ with the pithiness of the evangelist's sign I saw the other day ["1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4 Given"]. Of course, my wish for that misses some of the point, doesn't it? This is, after all, about a Christian witness that is too profound and too ambiguous to be boiled down to a bumpersticker.

Finally, there's a loose end for me.

Where does all of this leave the values of honorable and courageous willingness to risk all for a larger goal and principle?

I'm thinking most immediately of the Freedom Riders, whose story was told this week on Public TV. They willingly endured brutal and potentially fatal violence in the name of human rights. I don't think they saw the violence itself as redemptive or necessary. But they did see the willingness to endure it as necessary to the larger goal of making it possible for all people to travel freely across the land as they chose(although, as the PBS documentary shows, they were perhaps naive about the dangers they would face).

Less dramatically and more contemporaneously, I think of the resurgent interest in missional church, which emphasizes selflessness and willingness to lose oneself in service to the larger community.

Proverbs of Ashes doesn't dismiss such values as much as simply ignore them, at least as far as I can tell. It's that final connection that's missing for me, and that I'd like to see someone ultimately address.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Proud of my "Mother-in-Law Church"

For a very brief few years more than two decades ago, Garrison Keillor was married to a woman from Denmark and moved away to her native land to be with her. During that time he referred to Denmark as his "mother-in-law country."

For what I hope will be a much, much longer time (nearly six years and counting already!), I have been married to DairyStateMom, and for that reason, I have come to think of the Presbyterian Church (USA) -- and specifically, the congregation of which she is a member -- as my "mother-in-law church." The senior pastor of her congregation is a co-leader of one of three different Presbyterian organizations striving to open up ordination in the PC(USA) -- not just of pastors, but of church elders (who are the lay leaders of a congregation) to non-celibate gays and lesbians.

This week, the barrier fell. DairyStateMom wept with joy at the news, and I, too, felt overjoyed to see her church move toward becoming one "as generous as God's grace," in the words of the pro-gay Covenant Network of Presbyterians.

It's been tough to decide where I will worship this Sunday. Certainly part of me would love to be at DairyStateMom's church and to hear what their always-wonderful senior pastor says about this important new milestone.

But even more, I want to go to my own church and light a candle of joy and thanksgiving on behalf of my "Mother-in-law Church." So that is where I will be.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What They Said

I've read many good and thoughtful commentaries in the last few days on the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Here are three that stand out for me in particular:

Lizard Eater on the Psalms and how they speak to these events.

The Rev. David Pyle on how the Osama's death is likely to make no difference at best, and could likely lead to new terror.

And the Rev. John Buchanan, pastor of Chicago's Fourth Presbyterian Church and editor of The Christian Century, on a faithful response from a Mainline Christian perspective.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden

All day I've been sorting through my reaction to the news last night that President Obama had followed through on one of his campaign promises: To capture, and if need be, kill, Osama bin Laden.

I will cop to some moments of light-hearted triumphalism on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of last night's news. They are moments that, in a more sober frame of mind now, I would not have indulged in had I the opportunity to take them back.

I will cop, too, to the fact that some part of me felt a thrill of pride at the efficiency and dispatch of the military people who carried out the mission successfully. And yes, I also felt a certain smug superiority on the President's behalf, thinking how he was doing the serious work of helping to plan this mission even as he had to swat away idiocy about his birth certificate and assorted other distractions from inside and outside the Beltway.

I was proud of the solemnity of President Obama's brief speech on the events. I have seen some comments suggesting that having killed bin Laden without a trial violates our sense of justice, and I have found it easy -- too easy -- to wave away such objections. "You don't understand," I scoff back at the screen. "They would have taken him alive, but there was a firefight. So his death was unavoidable!"

I understood the glee and frat-party cheering in front of the White House by college students about the same age as my older son. I still remember the day he came home from 5th grade on September 11, 2001, with a note from his teacher explaining that the kids had not been told what had happened that awful morning, that it was thought better for them to hear the news from their parents.

But by that point last evening, I found the cheers and glee and chants of "U-S-A!" unseemly at best. And today, as friends responded in various quarters with a quotation from an apparently a possibly invented quotation attributed to Martin Luther King Jr.* about grieving the loss of lives but not cheering the death of an enemy, I found myself nodding in assent, and quietly acknowledging my own moral discomfort.

A superbly grounded young friend of our family who is spending this college semester in the Middle East posted on her own blog a nuanced and compassionate response, which I commend to wider attention. And at Deep River, I identified, too, with Anna Snoeyenbos's pricked conscience. My own sister, QuakerStateMom, spoke on her Facebook page deeply from her heart:

Am I relieved that Osama Bin Laden is no more? Yes. Am I sobered that our President played a role? Yes. Is it justice and closure? Not really. Was it inevitable? Probably. Do I rejoice? No. I have felt sickened since hearing the cheers... This is a time to soberly call on God's injustice: Mercy and Love.

God's injustice. That is no typo. It is a turn of phrase coined to counter the traditional justice of an eye for an eye, replacing it with a radical message of love.

She posted that not long after I had posted on Facebook a link to Eboo Patel's essay at the Beacon Press website, in which he tells of a friend who has joined the Navy SEALS (the same outfit who executed the mission to get bin Laden): “It is guys with guns that end wars, Eboo,” his friend told him. I felt Patel's essay grappled with the deep moral ambiguity of this moment.

I am not a pacifist. I do see a rough justice in the events of the last 24 hours, and I reluctantly believe that we continue to need a trained military to protect our land and our people. I respect those who have been called to service in that capacity, including, most recently, the son of a UU friend.

And I am also aware of the misuse to which military might has too often been put, even as I want to believe that other uses of it have been for a greater good in protecting the vulnerable in far away places as well as here at home. I wish that we could rise to a level at which military power was not needed, but I just don't have the faith that will be possible in my lifetime.

I think back, as well, to Sunday morning, hours before this news broke. At the UU church I attend, the sermon was preached by a pulpit guest, a local Buddhist priest who is an old friend of our congregation. One of the things he said was that everyone has a Buddha nature -- "even Donald Trump." Or even Osama bin Laden.

I believe that. Or at least I want to. Living it is another matter.

But while I have not yet grown enough to embrace pacifism myself, I believe we desperately need pacifists. They are a voice of conscience in our society and in our world. We ignore their restraining admonition at our moral peril.

And I recall, again, my favorite scene from The American President.

*Moments after posting this, I saw Will's latest post and learned of the apparently fictional provenance of the King quote. Accuracy is important to me, but I do share Will's sense that embedded in the fiction, there is a larger truth.

Further update: Reading further through the comments to the Atlantic item, many people claim that almost the same quote is demonstrably attributable to King. But right now I'm not seeing it. I do see another quote that is as good and seems well sourced; it happens to be the title of the blog entry from our friend to which I linked above.

Final, probably unnecessary, update: OK, what appears to be the case is that a false quote was inadvertently grafted on to a real one.