Turmoil, pt. 2

Spiritual turmoil, by its nature, is messy and chaotic. When you’re in the middle of it, you may not be entirely aware of what is causing your turmoil. I’ve been trying to identify what is causing my turmoil; I can’t say that I’m entirely sure, but I have come to some preliminary conclusions. Most of all, I think I’ve been bothered by theological anthropology — by the great religious question, “What is the nature of humanity?”

It started out, I think, a couple of months ago as I grew increasingly bothered by the way we treat teenagers these days. I was teaching a group of seventh and eighth graders, and one of them observed — with a voice tinged with anguish — that adults view teenagers as sick, as insane. It’s true, I thought to myself. There’s even a book out now titled Yes Your Teenager Is Crazy — a title that reduces young people to pathology. Our society understands adolescence as a pathological state; by definition, when a young person reaches puberty, adults assume that young person is consumed by a pathology — is not quite fully human — until the end of adolescence, which comes when the young person gets a full time job and moves out of their parents’ house.

But we don’t just see teenagers as pathological. There is a pervasive lack of trust throughout our society. Here in the United States, surveillance cameras are everywhere, because no one trusts you; and we Americans are increasingly likely to feel the need to carry a handgun, because we don’t trust the police, we don’t trust the government, and we don’t trust our neighbors. Churches and other voluntary associations are facing dwindling membership because we find it harder to be with other people, and to trust other people to make decisions with us.

And I think this lack of trust is tied to two other things. First, we are more likely to think of other persons as bundles of information that can be manipulated, just as information in a computer is manipulated. We are told that we are little more than biological computers — wetware — responding to the world based on our internal programming. Honor, duty, respect — these are not virtues, we are told, rather these are subroutines in our overall programming.

Second, we are more likely to view ourselves and other persons as cogs in an economic machine. We no longer live in a market economy, as Michael Sandel has pointed out, we live in a market society. Everything we do involves a commercial transaction or contract; everything and everyone can be bought and sold.

What is the nature of humanity? Well, to begin with, young people are pathologically crazy, at least until they get a full-time job. Then they become adults who are programmable biological computers. And what is the end of human existence? — to buy and to sell, trusting no one.

This is as far as I’ve gotten in analyzing what’s causing my spiritual turmoil. There is more to it than this. I know I am bothered by the way Unitarian Universalists mostly are not engaging in serious and careful theological reflection about the nature of humanity; two of the dominant theological positions within Unitarian Universalism, old-school religious humanism and angry liberal Christianity, spend their energy in facile and shallow arguments about the existence of “God,” and cede the realm of theological anthropology to pop psychology or consumer capitalism. I know I am increasingly drawn back to existentialism; I’ve been reading Dante’s Purgatorio for the first time; I’ve been reconsidering many of my assumptions about education. But that’s as far as I’ve gotten — mostly, it’s still just turmoil.

The New Gilded Age

At the very beginning of the Gilded Age, Louisa May Alcott wrote the novel Eight Cousins. In the course of that novel, she offers several pointed moral critiques of the American love of money, as in this exchange:

“‘Yes, but there’s no time to read nowadays; a fellow has to keep scratching round to make money or he’s nobody,’ cut in Charlies, trying to look worldly-wise.

“‘This love of money is the curse of America, and for the sake of it men will sell honor and honesty, till we don’t know whom to trust, and it is only a genius like Agassiz who dares to say, “I cannot waste my time in getting rich”,’ said Mrs. Jessie sadly.”

— Chapter 17, “Good Bargains,” Eight Cousins

Today we live in the New Gilded Age. The only reason to read now is to learn how to make money. Morality is tied to value in dollars. And if we have any Agassizes today, their voices are so few and so quiet that they can’t be heard over the clamor of the marketplace, where everything and anything — honor, honesty, morals, trust, duty — may be bought and sold.


Recently, I’ve been going through some spiritual turmoil. Now hearing about other people’s spiritual turmoil can be boring. Nevertheless, spiritual turmoil is a common enough problem that I think it’s worth spending some time thinking through what spiritual turmoil is, and what one does about it.

First of all, I think it’s very important to remember that spiritual turmoil is not pathological; it is uncomfortable, but it is not an illness. Our society shies away from discomfort; our default setting (especially amongst the middle class and upper middle class) is to try to buy our way out of discomfort; we might try to find a convenient pill or medication that will remove our discomfort, or go shopping or take a vacation to cover up the discomfort in the undeniable pleasure of buying new possessions or buying new experiences.

But spiritual turmoil is not an illness; it is not pathological. In my own experience, and in talking with others about their experiences, spiritual turmoil results when you can no longer adequately answer one of the big spiritual questions. The big spiritual questions include: Who am I? What ought I do? What is the ultimate nature of reality? What is the final destination of human beings? (These days, I’d add the question: How should we raise the children? — it is important enough to stand on its own, I now think, and not be lumped in with the question What ought I do?) Most of the time, most of us have come up with answers to these questions that serve us well. Continue reading “Turmoil”

What I did with my weekend

Sacred Harp singing convention

The view from the bass section as a singer from Bremen, Germany, (alas, I didn’t catch her name) named Eva led well over a hundred singers at a Sacred Harp singing convention this past weekend.

What was it like singing with all those people, you ask? I’ll limit myself to the physiological response. With something over thirty singers in the bass section, I could feel my whole body vibrating to the lower notes. And since this is highly rhythmic music, we could also spend time talking about entrainment from an ethnomusicological perspective.

This, by the way, is why you might want to improve congregational singing so that it’s good, rhythmic, and loud — because when you do that, it feels really good.

How to feel comfortable, or not

Do you like your congregation because it feels so comfortable? Most of us do. We want to be able to go someplace each week where we can feel at home. But I came across the following statement by Bernice Johnson Reagon that makes me think maybe I shouldn’t want to feel so comfortable in my congregation:

“If you’re in a coalition and you feel comfortable it’s not a broad enough coalition.”

Who’s a member? (What’s a member?)

Three of us from our congregation met this afternoon to talk about our new membership database. The topic for today’s conversation: what categories will we have for people in the database?

Twenty years ago, it was fairly easy to categorize people in your congregation’s database: there were members, and there was everyone else. Members were those people who signed the membership book (in my religious tradition, some people used to get theological and defined members as those who agreed to abide by the congregation’s covenant). Most people who attended your congregation’s Sunday services on a regular basis would sign the membership book, sooner or later. Sure, there were always one or two grumpy people who refused to become members; and a few conscientious people who, for reasons of (carefully thought out) conscience, felt they could not sign the membership book; but most regular attenders eventually became members.

That was twenty years ago.

Today, fewer and fewer people seek out institutional affiliation of any kind. Probably this is related to larger societal trends of civic disengagement, the loss of trust in all institutions, and the displacement of organized religion to society’s margins. In a new book, congregational expert Peter Steinke says, “None of this has to do with the church’s internal functioning. The sea change is external or contextual.” Whatever the cause(s), we’re seeing more and more people who want to participate in our congregations without ever wanting to become members.

In the near future, I predict that “membership” is going to attract an ever decreasing number of people.

The problem is, we knew what to do with members. The congregation sent its members regular communications (e.g., newsletters, email lists, etc.), which they liked to receive, and which they read. They in turn knew how to communicate with key people in the congregation. And both the congregation and the members knew who was going to ask for money to run the congregation, and where that money is coming from.

We still know what to do with members, but we’re not quite so sure what to do with the other people who are coming into our congregations, the ones who don’t want to become members. These people may not want to receive our newsletter — they only want to hear about the things they want to hear about; and they want to hear about them in the ways they prefer (SMS, Facebook), not the ways we prefer (printed and email newsletters). These people do not know what a canvass is, or how or why we raise money (some of them even think we receive government support — no joke!), although they’re probably willing to be educated about how we take care of our finances, and how they can help us further our mission.

These are some of the things the three of us talked about this afternoon. We came up with at least four categories for our new membership database: “members” (people who have signed the membership book and who pledge annually); “friends” (people who have signed a declaration of friendship, a lower level of affiliation); “participants” (people who have participated in one or more congregational activities, ministries, or events); and “newcomers” (people who have showed up Sunday morning and are still relatively new to our community). We talked about the idea of another category, which we tentatively called the “distance” category: those people who no longer live close to us but who feel an emotional attachment to us, who may want to receive our communications, and who may sometimes want to give money to as a tangible expression of their appreciation for the congregation. We toyed with the idea of having separate “participant” categories, one for Sunday mornings “participants,” and one for “participants” who come at other times, but decided we don’t need that level of detail (yet). We did add a category for “child,” because we needed to distinguish between adult “participants” and non-adult “participants.” We also added a category for “deceased.” And we talked about other ways people may have relationships with our congregation, which we don’t quite know how to describe or categorize as yet.

I came away from our meeting with a very strong sense of the increasing importance of types of congregational affiliation besides “membership.” More and more people care less and less about the meaning of “membership,” and the younger they are the less they care. It’s like a century ago, when gradually people didn’t want to own pews any more, and they came up with this idea of congregational membership instead. Well, just as pew ownership once disappeared, I suspect we’re seeing a time when “membership” is slowly disappearing.

What do you think — is congregational membership is slowly disappearing? If so, what do you think will replace it?

Good King Wenceslas

Here’s another song for Christmas time:— Quite a few people in our congregation like the song “Good King Wenceslas” because it’s a social justice song: King Wenceslas and his page bring food, drink, and fuel to a poor family on the Feast of St. Stephen, December 26 (the second day of Christmas). While they’re trudging through the snow to the poor family’s dwelling, the king’s page weakness and thinks he can go no longer, but Wenceslas provides warmth to keep him going; and this is my favorite part of the story because it seems to me to be a kind of parable about social justice leadership.

Philip, a long-time member of our congregation, pointed out to us that you can produce a nice effect if the high voices (i.e., most of the women and the children) sing the page’s words, and the low voices (i.e., those who sing in the tenor and bass range) sing the king’s words. So that’s how we sing it in our congregation.

Click on the image below for PDF sheet music of the traditional (copyright-free) four-part arrangement by John Stainer, with guitar chords, and sized correctly to fit into the typical order of service:


“We Wish You…”

Every year in our congregation, Paul, one of our resident musicians, teaches the children in grades preK – 3 a couple of Christmas songs. On the day of our No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant, Paul has the children sing these songs at the beginning of the early service.

One of the songs Paul usually has the children sing is “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Actually, it’s a great song for anyone to sing. I found an old four-part arrangement, simplified it, added guitar chords — and here it is, in a PDF version that’s copyright-free and sized right to go into the typical order of service:

We Wish

Academics and practitioners

A few days ago on the “Key Resources” blog, a blog about faith formation from Virginia Theological Seminary blog, Kyle Oliver asked: “What has the academy to do with congregational faith formation (and vice versa)?”

What prompted this question? Kyle had been at the recent annual conference of the Religious Education Association (REA), which is supposed to be an organization of scholars and practitioners. But he had not been convinced that the REA offers much to practitioners: “I wasn’t entirely convinced of the value of the conference for a non-academically-aspiring faith formation minister in a congregation.”

Speaking as a minister of religious education, I agree with Kyle that the academics, not the practitioners, dominate the conference. Two examples of what I mean when I say the academics dominate: (1) At the 2011 conference, I went to an excellent workshop given by Ryan Gardner on teacher reflection for volunteer teachers; it was the only practical workshop in that time slot; yet only two other people showed up, one of whom admitted she was in the wrong workshop (she stayed anyway, bless her heart). (2) At this year’s conference, I went to a good workshop given by Tom Groome on practical approaches to pedagogy for the local congregation; again, it was the only practical workshop in that time slot; yet the conversation got taken over at a couple of points by academics who wanted to argue rather obscure theoretical points. At the same time, all the academics whom I met were sympathetic to practitioners; some of them appeared to be pleased when they found out I actually worked in a congregation with real, live children and youth. I don’t think the academics want to dominate the REA conference.

Some of the problem may lie in the realities that we religious education practitioners face these days. When I started working as a religious educator in the Boston area, back in 1994, it was commonplace for some of the older religious educators to talk about how they studied with Robert Kegan, James Fowler, Tom Groome, and other scholars. Back then it was also commonplace for lay Directors of Religious Education to have a full-time, well-compensated job; there were many more Ministers of Religious Education; congregations expected us to take time to study and keep up with the field. That’s no longer true. As staff costs for congregations outpace inflation, as organized religion declines in an era of civic disengagement, as society changes rapidly around us, as congregations need more from us and are able to offer less to us — as all this goes on, many of us who work in local congregations feel overwhelmed as we try to do more and more with less and less, as we try to keep kids engaged, as we try to hold on to our jobs and our pay.

As a result, when we practitioners go to any kind of conference, we’re usually looking for relentlessly useful ideas that we can use right now. We’re desperate. John Roberto of Faith Formation 2020 gets this; he gives us practitioners what we need in easily digestible bites. At the recent REA conference, I think Beth Katz of Project Interfaith intuited some of this; she showed us excellent and innovative curricula that were both immediately useful and grounded in interesting theoretical perspectives. Mind you, Katz and Roberto are not exactly academics, though they are academically informed. One academic who gets this is Bob Pazmino: I talked with Bob informally at the recent REA conference, and he not only asked me about what was going on in my congregation, and listened carefully and respectfully, but he was able to present me with some interesting possibilities for new directions based on his academic work.

In short, I think Kyle Oliver is correct when he says that he’s not “entirely convinced of the value of the REA conference” for most of us practitioners. I think the academics might want to pay more attention to Kyle’s critique, and think about how they might better unite their theory with our practical realities.

I would also say that we practitioners have to remember that our praxis should be informed with theory. Perhaps it’s time to get a little more assertive, as Kyle is doing, and help the academics pay better attention to what’s going on in our local congregations.

Marriage as a religious act

I received an interesting and thoughtful comment via email on a sermon titled “Marriage as a Religious Act” which I recently posted on my main Web site. I realized that this sermon relates to some issues you, dear readers, and I have addressed on this blog — most importantly, the sexual revolution within Unitarian Universalism, and the theological basis (if any) for marriage in our tradition. Since this is something we have talked about here, and since I greatly value the comments I get from you, I decided to post this sermon and see what you might have to say about it. The sermon beging below the fold.

Continue reading “Marriage as a religious act”