Friday, July 11, 2008

Level Six Cleric

For my 500th post, I'd like to share with you another anniversary post that I was just referred to by my friend, Neal.

His friend Jack writes an overview of his previous year as a minister, in his words, "culminating in the declaration that I've 'leveled up' as a cleric." This is one of the world's best Dungeons and Dragons jokes I've ever read.

However, this is where the levity ends. As one reads along, one learns that Jack has encountered turmoil in his ministry and has made a drastic break in his trajectory. Let me quote some of it for you, but it is worth reading the entire thing.

He starts with a very emergent sentence, although he comes out of a Unitarian Universalist tradition, which is a sector that is not very involved in the Emerging movement. Of course, I've been saying all along that it's important to keep track of all folks who are emerging so that we can converge on each other. He says, "I still seem to be a better minister than ever, even as I seem on the verge of giving up religious ministry completely."

Here's something I didn't quite grasp when I set out on this journey as a minister: "religion" used to mean "that which binds." . . . You see, I never really bound myself to anything. Before understanding this meaning of religion, I laughed off my lack of bindings as typical male fear of committment, and spoke of my religion using words like "independance" "freedom" and "choice."

He goes on to describe that as his personal life suffered as all personal lives do: death, divorce, unemployment. His church encouraged him to relieve himself of his church duties to take care of these issues. The tone of his post suggests that although their intent was good, their very act belied that church was not religion and that this wasn't necessarily a good thing.

It was within all this turmoil that I really began to understand my deepest priorities in life. My true religion, if you will--that which I cling to, when all else crumbles around me; the mast I am bound to in the storm. I found there was another word besides religion to fairly describe these core bonds. When I looked for what was most important to me, what I found was family.

I don't just mean blood family, or legal family, but also and foremost those friends who are close enough to be called family. The people to whom I am tied, flesh and soul, and I cannot leave them behind without also leaving part of myself. The people I care about and love.

And I thought, "Eureka! Religion and family really mean nearly the same thing!" And I saw, in scripture and practice, how the familial terms used by religious authority were not mere metaphor or parable, but rather reflected recognition on the part of the leadership that their role was in essence the same as the role pursued by mother, father, brother and sister. They're playing the same game--not to imply that it is mere game--whose goal is nothing less than that which is most important, meaningful and binding in life.

My church is just beginning to talk about how to do membership. At the same time, I've had a conversation with a woman who had an almost identical experience to mine at River City, my old church. She felt like she couldn't get into the in-crowd and that her leadership in the ministry was unwelcome. How do I take that information and help ensure that my new church does not create the same kind of insularity as many of us are in the process of committing to each other as family?

Absent from our church was the patient introspection of priests and rabbis, whose rituals of initiation and advancement help ensure that everyone involved takes the religious bond seriously. Absent was the carefully considered theology that allows us to understand the commitments being made. Instead, we relied on various forms of bait-and-switch, calling people together in the name of religious freedom and independence, then arguing over responsibility and commitment only after they've signed up. These convoluded expectations mostly just created bitterness, burnout and resentment among our volunteers.

It's an easy mistake to make, but ultimately, it just doesn't work. Casual membership leads to casual dissolution when time gets tough; if you want a functional and healthy religious family that can weather life's difficulties, you have to approach membership with all the seriousness and reservation you'd give to any other familial bond. Yet the more you do that, the more you lose the openness and freedom that made our "universalist" institutions particularly worthwhile in the first place. There's always a tradeoff.

How do we continue to welcome new people while acknowledging that some folks have a deeper relationship with one another because of time and deliberate choice?

Jack decides to leave the church to pursue religion with his family. How do we create a new kind of church that is worth being religious within it?

I don't know but I'm glad we're giving it a try.


Rev. Jack Ditch said...

Howdy! Thanks for taking an interest in my sermon!

Here's how I figure:

If religion is "that which binds," then the verb form of this act of binding, at least insomuch as it occurs between one human and another, is what I call "love." I know I'm stretching the word a bit here, as any bond that has turned sour might be more appropriately characterized as hate, but as the topic is religious membership and commitment, I think I can run with the idea that that's what two people bound in common religion are at least trying to do: love one another.

From this perspective, there is nothing immediately shameful about the existence of an "in-crowd" in a church. However you define church membership, if you find within that church a crowd of people so tightly knit that they act as one being in contrast to the outside world, that's a good thing!

Likewise, there is nothing shameful about feeling discomfort around such an impenetrable in-crowd; nor is it shameful when the in-crowd feels discomfort around a stranger. I think of it much like romance: Who would blame you for feeling awkward on a first date? Who would blame you for not wanting to date someone? Don't we have elaborate rituals to go through before any sort of bond is presumed, ones that are expected to occur only after a patient and introspective period of getting to know one another to find out if we even *like* each other?

I think the shame enters into the picture because, unlike romantic love, we believe we have been commanded to pursue spiritual love openly with every human being. When that stranger walks through our doors, we expect ourselves to be welcoming and affirming of them right off the bat, and at least in "liberal" churches, that stranger is likely to be self-righteously expecting the same of us. Theologically and philosophically, we skip right past getting to know each other, because we're EXPECTED to like each other. Suffice to say, I believe that approach works as well in religion as it does in romance.

So how do we balance our universalist ideals against our limited human ability to truly love? I think that the UUs, with their secular humanist paradigm, might be screwed. They want a church that is practical and humanly achievable, and our limited human abilities stand at odds with our ideals in a very practical way, such that any claim to universalism will eventually lead to hypocricy. But luckily, Jesus rarely makes any pretense of being practical. By believing in Jesus, I believe that there is a being out there that loves even the worst sinner, despite the apparent impossibility of that task. This helps keep me always open to the possibility of greater love, growing in love even as I recognize and respect my own limits.

All of which is to say, if I were seeking to create a formal religious institution, I would structure it such that initiation into church membership remained a clear and distinct thing from membership in the Body of Christ (or membership in the Universal Human Family, or whatever else I then considered to be the outer boundary of Stuff God Loves.) We are all connected in love THROUGH Christ, but unless any of us is so saintly as to lay down our life to save those who would murder us, none of us is as well connected in love AS Christ. We build churches to be icons of Christ's ultimate love, but when we act as if they are the source of such ultimate love, we make them into idols. Churches are human institutions, with the full array of human limitations, and it's better to know those boundaries and make them explicit than it is to pretend they're nonexistant until it really matters.

I offer up the example of Roman Catholic orders, such as the Jesuits or the Franciscans. These are people who have tightly bound themselves together to prioritize service to Christ's love above service to themselves. Each individual priest is striving to be an icon of Christ's love, through explict religious vows. And yet, they show no hesitance when defining membership in their order with extreme prejudice, so thorough is their understanding of how far the boundaries of their religion extend beyond the boundaries of their order.

This world is chock full of aspiring popes, each seeking to build that one institution (usually with a name involving "universal" or "unity" or "catholic") that might embrace the whole. My advice, after years of failure on that front, is to turn and face the other way, recognize that your church is but one small part of a body so vast that no mere human can embrace the whole, and focus your attention instead on the particular and limited things that gather your particular congregation together. Build your rites of initiation around that, and the contradictions I've spoken of practically disappear.

PrincessMax said...

Thanks for responding to my post so thoroughly. I absolutely agree with your assessment that a church has to find a middle ground between thinking we can replace Christ's love with our own and becoming totally insular.

However, I can't agree is that the answer is to tighten requirements to be part of the "in" group. For me, church is a place that I go to encourage my own transformation through interaction with other people who have the same goal. If we demarcate any step in the transformation process as the one that makes us acceptable to the group, it creates inappropriate attention and has huge potential to stop forward motion for those that have reached the milestone and to speed up the process for those who have not yet reached it, which can also be damaging. This is to say nothing of the assumption that it makes that we'll all hit the same milestones as we become the people God wants us to be.

The other reason I'm uncomfortable with creating initiation rituals that inherently keep people out is that I like the fact that our church believes that hospitality is good because it is a transformational expression of gratitude, which is a sustainable spiritual practice. There will always be new people who need to be welcomed and so there will always be areas for more personal growth for established folks. It's sort of like AA for me. Folks there stay sober by helping other people get sober. The reciprocal nature of the relationship keeps the human desire to dominate in check and creates a society where all people have equal value.

I think I'll see you Saturday at Neal's party. Let's keep talking. This is fun! Anyone else have additional thoughts to consider?