Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Missing Ingredient

Something most of you may not know is that my first real boyfriend was from North Palm Beach. Now, we were only 14, but on weekends we left our respective cities to become barefoot country kids on the shore of Lake Okeechobee. His parents made and sold fishing tackle from a traveling vehicle. My folks loved fishing and I still have their cottage in Lakeport, walking distance from Brighton Reservation. 

Well, we learned a lot about real life back in those days when there were few enough gators that you could still swim in fresh water and when junior high kids could take off alone with a small boat and an outboard motor without worry. Life was simple.

In fact, one of our neighbors was a man who lived alone and grew his own vegetables.

The year he finally got too old to do it himself, he wanted to dig his tomato garden but it was very hard work. His only son, Robert, who used to help him, was in prison. The old man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament.

Dear Robert,

I am feeling pretty bad because it looks like I won't be able to plant my tomato gardenthis year. I am getting too old to be digging up a garden plot.

If you were here, my troubles would be over. I know you would dig the garden for me. 

Love, Papa

A few days later he received a letter from his son.

Dear Papa, I'd do anything for you Papa, except dig up that garden. That's where I  buried the bodies.

Love, Robert

At 4am the next morning, the FBI and county sheriff arrived and dug up the entire area without finding any bodies. They apologized to the old man and left. The same day the old man received another letter from his son.

Dear Papa, Go ahead and plant the tomatoes now. That's the best I could do under the circumstances.

Love, Robert.

Sometimes, being a Unitarian Universalist means being alone. Most of us who identify as part of this faith understand the experience.  We've practiced the elevator speech - how to explain who we are in 50 words or less -- and we have pretty slick ways to avoid dealing with intrusive questions ...

"Of course I'm saved, I'm a Universalist. I believe everyone is saved."

If we've been around the denomination long enough and we want people to know who we are, we may wear jewelry to signify our faith, often symbols representing the flaming chalice like we lit earlier in the service. All of these things, for those of you who are visitors today, become recognizable touchstones for folks who find their strength in our faith community. Our Christian heritage comes from a heretical belief in the oneness of God, on the Unitarian side, and from a Universalist trust that all souls will eventually be reconciled with and loved by God.

As the 20th Century Universalists and Unitarians moved to extend that concept to inclusion of all of those who love alike, rather than think alike, and a merger of the two denominations into our current association, we adopted the symbol of the flame in the chalice. Both common in many religions, together they can be representative of religious freedom, of many faiths individually, and collectively, and of Unitarian Universalism.

So, today, many of us wear various versions of the flaming chalice, just as Christians wear the cross and Jews wear the Star of David.

Especially in parts of the world like this, the South -- yes, Florida is the South -- the flaming chalice serves as a sign of recognition much like the symbol of the fish did for the early Christians. During the times when Christianity existed mainly as a Jewish cult, forced underground out of fear, believers could recognize one another by drawing the sign of the fish in the sand. The earliest churches uncovered by archeologists evidence the sign of the fish as well.

No one has the impression that the chalice holds any magic power. It is simply shared. It's meaning can be as simple as letting us know we are not alone in the world. So when we who feel so connected inside the church find ourselves at sea in an unfriendly religious context, we might be on the lookout for the sign of the chalice.

This especially matters when we find ourselves in danger and end up in the hospital or in an emergency situation. Today, when we are suddenly thrust into an institution, whether it is academic or medical or, heaven forbid, correctional, the only person there who comes to us with compassion strictly for support -- not to take blood or to give assignments or for any other functional purpose - is the chaplain.

Professional chaplains have training so they can minister to people of all faiths and of no faith. That's what clinical pastoral education is all about. In theory, every chaplain can come to any person regardless of their theological beliefs with at least a minimal understanding of different religions and a maximum of respect for diversity of belief. That's the point of training chaplains to work in community, and that includes with first responders like firefighters or law enforcement as well as with disaster relief teams.

But the truth is that even within our own faith, we who identify as Unitarian Universalists are a rather complicated people.

We ask a lot of the typical chaplain if we expect them to really know us.  And because our structure has no official support for community ministers after they earn denominational credentials, unlike parish pastors or religious educators, it is rare to encounter one in the wild.

When it happens, it's worth mentioning. As a staff chaplain for a secular college, it was my job to serve all of the  academic community, not to identify myself as part of a particular denomination or religion. So while I could wear the campus ministry shirt, I was not allowed to show anything depicting a particular denomination.

It was important. There were mainstream Protestant families who thanked me for my presence. There were evangelical Christian parents who needed my reassurance that their child would be safe and supported while studying and living on campus in a liberal arts college among young adults with far different values. There were Jewish parents looking for a collegiate atmosphere that offered at least the hope of a potential match with another good Jewish student in a supportive community when sending their offspring away from the city.

One year I even lined up a way for Muslim students to observe Ramadan during the week of orientation, complete with signs on campus pointing the direction toward Mecca for daily prayers. The parents of international students sent me e-mails of thanks.

But occasionally I would spot a student or parent wearing a chalice. Then I could speak about our mutual faith. And what a surprise that would be!

On one occasion, a family came to the office to meet someone because they were concerned about their son, who had been home schooled all his life in a small town in New England, but had chosen to come to this Florida school for his first formal education experience. It was a tenuous time for that young adult, who had various personal issues, and they were rather unsure about the whole conversation when they realized they were speaking with the chaplain. After all, they said, they weren't very religious.

But, yes, the student's grandparents were in the area. And, yes, the grandparents did have a religious community. They were Unitarian Universalists.

Well, that's when everything changed. Fear and insecurity changed to recognition and familiarity. You mean the institutional chaplain could actually be a Unitarian Universalist?

It's true. I had been the first of our denomination ever hired into that position since the college's existence. And to get the job I had to initially prove my membership as Unitarian Universalist Christian clergy with a rather impressive letter from UU Christian director, the Rev. Ron Robinson, explaining our place in Protestant history.

That was a battle unto itself.  But to its credit, the ecumenical board of Sarasota Campus Ministry stood up to other denominational naysayers and insisted that one Christian was as good as any other. They didn't demand a Trinitarian or a creed. It was a loving, professional ministry that they wanted. So when this young adult UU came seeking support and found the chaplain, for once the chaplain was actually a UU as well. And that made all the difference.

It shouldn't have to be that way. But sometimes it is. Our faith tries to be a welcoming one. We celebrate that our members hold diverse theological positions and spiritual practices. That's part of what makes our religious base almost an ideal one from which to serve as a chaplain, if you're a minister.

When other chaplains are struggling with interfaith ministry, most of us are the leaders among our peers in how to serve those of differing beliefs,  especially with those of no affiliation.

Working as a chaplain in the hospice house, I found that my colleagues would happily defer to me if the patient was an atheist or a pagan or something far from the Christian norm. But I also found that the more I worked with the greater community, the easier it became for me to recite scripture and the Lord's Prayer with those who needed to hear it. I became a better person of faith as I learned to minister without prejudice.  The more I could let go of my own needs and allow myself to give in the manner that the patient or the student or the community needed, the better a chaplain I became.

At the Unitarian Universalist seminary I attended, Starr King School for the Ministry, in restoring its historic library we discovered the motto established by its founders was this quote from Jesus:

Non ministrare sed ministrare he said in Matthew 10:28 and Mark 10:45 at the completion of his mission. The Latin words mean, I come not to be ministered unto, but to minister.  It is a fine example to follow.

In recent years we have come to think of our congregations as consumer-driven. How can we grow by creating a commodity that draws church customers? Let's be the 7 -day-a-week church. Let's build a gym and tell people what they get for their pledges -- what's it worth to you to belong here?

But, honestly, that's not the concept of faith.

And the consumer model isn't working. Today, we are losing members, just like the other Protestants. So copying them hasn't worked at all.

Maybe it's time to quit worrying about what we can get for our pledge dollars and start thinking about how we can find joy in giving, because it really is more rewarding to give than to receive. People really do thrive more in community than in a little oasis of isolation.

Consumers go shopping on Sundays.

A United Methodist colleague asked me to write a chapter in this book that I brought today, in case you are interested in all the many ways chaplains serve in the world. Because there are many clergy who feel called to work outside the parish.

What is difficult about serving outside the parish in our denomination is that we have so few ways of connecting to Unitarian Universalism when our structure rests solely upon congregations. Without a whole world vision, without participation in the entire interdependent web of which we are a part, there can be no community ministry, and our faith community can easily slip into invisibility.

Did you know there was once a Shaker community in Florida?  It's true.

In 1896 more than 7,000 acres were purchased in Osceola County to set up a Shaker community. But by 1915 the Olive Branch community had completely dissolved. Their furniture may still be around, but their faith died. They were too insular.

They weren't the only ones. In 1894 Cyrus Reed Teed brought followers to Estero, Florida, to build New Jerusalem for his faith, Koreshan Unity, which included the belief that the entire universe existed within a giant, hollow sphere. The colony began fading after Teed's death in 1908 and in 1961 the last four members deeded the land to the state.

Now, I'm not saying that's going to be the fate of Unitarian Universalism. Not at all.

But I am saying that if we want to be the kind of people who "Stand on the Side of Love" and make a difference in the world, we need to do more than just get arrested in protest. Don't get me wrong -- I love a good protest line like the best of them. But somebody needs to be there to serve the folks when they are serving time in jail. That's what chaplains do.

You know, we started out in this country with a rather famous chaplain. The Rev. William Emerson, pastor of First Parish in Concord, MA, and grandfather of the Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, on April 19, 1775, took to the streets with the American troops in his black minister's frocks as they defended the city against the British. Leaving his pulpit with the words, "Let us stand our ground; if we die, let us die here;" Emerson left with the army as a chaplain for Fort Ticonderoga and later died at age 33 of camp fever.

Today, community ministry is the missing ingredient. You don't have to be clergy to do it, but it helps to have clergy doing it. It helps when we can be recognized.

Now, I don't know your church well, but when I look at your web page I see lots of individual social justice projects going on, which is great! But what I don't see is a coordinated team effort toward any one goal.

When people in the community see this congregation, do they say that's the folks to lead us to a new vision, or do they say there's a bunch of liberals who have a finger in everything but accomplish little as a group?

You have to tell me. I don't know the answer.

I can tell you I get the message that anti-racism isn't very important to you as a congregation because you're just waiting for someone to care enough to take on the cause, and it looks from the outside like people accept jobs when they have a passion for a particular issue.

The truth is that there's nothing wrong with that. That's what lay people do.

But as a faith community, as a religious leader -- which we Unitarian Universalists have to be if we expect to see the change we say we want to see in the world -- then we need more than that.

And the people who are dedicated to this kind of leadership don't just sit in pews on Sundays. They get called to the ministry.

We call them community ministers.


Many of these Community ministers are ordained, and they affiliate with congregations. Some lay ministries also work with congregations to accomplish specific goals. Only you know what is right for your church.

But, please, pay attention. It matters to all of us. It matters to the world. It especially matters to Florida.




Let's be a team to make a difference in the world.

We come not to be ministered to, but to minister.

The Missing Ingredient: Growing Our Faith With Community Ministry, a sermon delivered by the Rev. Dee Graham at 1stUUPB, Jan 26, 2014.

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