When you go to big gatherings of Unitarian Universalists, there is always buzz about the future of our movement. Together we try to cast a vision of who we are becoming, who we are called to be. One of my favorite presenters at such events is Galen Guengerich who serves the All Souls Church in New York City. They have 1000 members there and three full time ministers. Whenever Galen gives a workshop at GA it is going to be on the cutting edge. There might be a full jazz ensemble providing meditative interludes. There is certainly a high tech AV system, so that when he wants to references something from popular culture, he pushes some magic button and there is perfect cinema quality music and sound, seamlessly integrated into his presentation.
Sometimes at these national events where large abundantly staffed congregations take the lead, it’s easy to feel left behind. We are told that if we are not skillful about our presence on twitter and Facebook, we won’t appeal to a younger populous, that if we don’t sophisticated technology, and current popular music in our worship, the millennial generation won’t feel at home. We begin to wonder if our low-tech churches are relics of a time past.
When I was a very little girl participating in the town Easter egg hunt for the first time I found the whole experience kind of overwhelming and confusing. After 5 minutes of chaos the hunt was over and I returned to my mom, probably crying, holding my basket with only one egg, Mom told me this story, which has been almost archetypal for me ever since. She said “When that crowd of children headed left, you headed right. There you were alone with dozens of eggs, but when you looked up and saw where the other kids were, you left the eggs and followed the crowd. Of course by the time you got there, all the eggs were gone, and when you came back to where you started, all those eggs were gone too. If you had just stayed where you were, you would have a basket full of eggs right now.”
I have been mulling over that story ever since. When I realize that I have been separated from the crowd, I try to ask not “how can I get back into the crowd” but “where are the eggs around me, right now, that only I can reach.” This morning’s sermon is not a challenge to keep up with the crowd, to have higher resolution visuals in your sanctuary or to design an App for your congregation that works with the latest smartphones. You already receive plenty of encouragement from our culture to move in that direction. Instead, let’s look at the eggs hiding around us right now.
First, we here at UUCAS, and many of the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention churches, are family sized churches. I don’t have to tell you the challenges of being a small church- we live those each week. But I want to remind us of the special gift of the small church, which is relational-ity. Anyone who has ever gone to a large church knows that sometimes it can be a lonely experience. But I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt lonely at UUCAS. Even when I came to preach here for the first time your friendliness shone and I felt welcome. There is no chance of getting lost in the crowd here, we know each other and we know each other’s lives. We open our hearts to newcomers and visitors. Younger generations have a lot to teach us about the rapidly evolving web of social media, but people of every age will always want a place in the physical world where they can be with people they know and trust, and where they can meet new people in a web of community.
There are other hidden gifts of being small. I hear story after story from colleagues at larger institutions about how hard it is to maintain a large salaried staff. At General Assembly a speaker referenced with a nervous laugh the emerging trend that more and more ministers will be piecing together part time and multi-site ministries. I thought to myself- well on this one at least we are ahead of the curve! When the Alban institution closed after decades of being leaders in church life, a journalist theorized that we are headed into a time when many such institutions will be closing because they have an infrastructure that is unsustainable. At UUCAS we have always used our money carefully, staying lean. We don’t confuse the success of our shared ministry with the trappings of monetary success. It’s easy to look longingly at churches with full time youth ministers and a state of the art AV system for seamless video content in worship. But when the crash happened, UUCAS had a lean infra-structure, and no debit, and a board that understands the importance of stewarding its resources carefully to keep our institution sustainable. Moreover, we have the incredible privilege and responsibility of being part of the PUC, another community that has a long term view toward the survival of Universalism.
Our small size also makes us nimble. I came from a church where even after 2 years of meetings we could not begin to imagine how we could make composting church food scraps into a reality. Here at UUCAS the children were painting compost buckets one Sunday, and Katie bought an extra one for the church. Now Chris or Carol or Katie take the scraps home whenever the bucket is used, and so composting happens. Now that doesn’t mean anything we want will just happen. My first year as your minister a Coming of Age program with the Fellowship in Big Flats came together quickly and the whole congregation jumped in to support it. It was important to the young UUs who came of age, and it was powerful to me. Last year we had no teens at all here most Sundays. There was no force of will that would have made a Coming of Age program happen. It would have been like a Fish trying to go adventuring on land. But it’s starting to look like next year may be one of those magical Coming of Age years again. This is not a church where we can promise families that every week there will be a Sunday school class at each grade level, but today I have no doubt that Chris and those kids are up to something cool. Because we are nimble we are able to respond as the moment unfolds to the needs and gifts of our community. The full moon drumming circle is another example. When I first arrived at the church there was a lively bunch that came to drum under the leadership of Marion Minnick. When Marion no longer lead the circle, that field lay fallow for several years. Then the gifted Janelle came into our membership, and up it springs full of life.
Another gift of this church is our location. The Valley NEEDS us. So often I get advice like “you should connect with the local GLBT community center” and I think, well, I guess that’s us. “Why don’t you work with the local interfaith group?” I guess that’s us too. “What about a local humanist group.” That’s DEFINITELY us. The Valley is what you might call an “underserved community.” We are needed here. Folks from the valley reach out to me to marry them when they don’t know where else to go. Can I marry GLBT folks? Of course. Atheists? Naturally. Whether or not this congregation could ever grow large enough for a full time staff, we have an important ministry in this community. We are needed here. Moreover, the UUA need us here. When I stand up at national UU gatherings and explain that the technology gap is alive and well in rural Pennsylvania, that members of my congregation have limited access to the internet not only because of financial realities, but also because no one will run high speed cable lines out to some of our homes, my colleagues look genuinely surprised. When we remind our colleagues that the impressive list of webinars offered to our congregations don’t works so well over dial-up, we speak for all those UUs and folks who might never find UUism because they are on the wrong side of the technology gap.
Here in Rural Pennsylvania, we also understand the political diversity of UUs. We know there are Unitarian Universalists who support second amendment rights. We know that UUs have complex feelings about hydrofracking. If there is ever going to be a true dialogue between genuinely different opinions, if we are ever to reach across the gap between liberal and conservative, it is going to start in a community like ours, where our neighbors have changed their minds about same-sex marriage because of that nice couple down the road, and we, in turn, have the opportunity to have our own minds stretched by our neighbors and friends. Or, what was it Kathleen McTeague called it yesterday? “Glad Curiosity.”
That, already, is a field of eggs wider than we can ever gather in –even with all 40 members of UUCAS working diligently together, even with every congregation in the PUC. So how do we discern our Wyrd, our own unique path? Recently our congregation adopted a mission statement: to be a liberal religious community dedicated to service, spiritual growth, and ethical living. The heart of that, the starting place has to be “spiritual Growth.” That’s what makes us different from the Food bank of the Southern Tier, or the United Way. One of the teachers in my Spiritual Direction Training, Don Bisson, introduced us to Karl Rahner, the famous catholic theologian who influenced Vatican 2. Rahner said “Christians in the coming age must all become mystics or be nothing at all.” Don interpreted his statement this way: “[Rahner’s] vision is: the future of the church-- if the church is going to have a future-- is how do we initiate men and women into the universal call to holiness and union with God because that’s where the world would change. Not on what denomination you belong to, or whether you are Christian or not Christian, the transformation of the world is dependent on our call to holiness.”
Rahner is saying a very Universalist thing here. He is saying that whatever deeper truth lays at the heart of things, spirituality must either be at the core of who we are as a church, or we may as well close our doors. For all the folks who check off “none” on surveys about religion, it is not obvious why they would want to support the Unitarian Universalist tradition or any other tradition. But the soul hunger for the depth of life, that is universal. And the capacity to seek and find that depth, Universalists believe that this is the right and potential of each and every person. The first source of our UU tradition is: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” In other words, mysticism. This is the single most important thing we can offer the world, direct experience of the forces which create and uphold life. Which renew our spirit.
Rahner calls this “union with God.” But we know that not all UUs, nor all those in the wider community who are spiritually hungry are comfortable with the word “God”, so let’s switch gears a bit and look at this from the psychological perspective. Don continues “We get lost if we don’t experience something deeper in us than just our superficial ego needs. We get lost. This is what Jung called soul murder.”
There is no App to feed our spiritual hunger. It is not Facebook that brings us back to the deeper self when we are lost. The reason I like, for example, to sit and hear Galen’s talks is not because of how his beautiful technology (okay, maybe a little. It is pretty cool) but it is because he has a message worth hearing. And you, you left your home this morning not because everyone on Twitter was talking about today’s service, not because you wanted to follow the crowd, but because you wanted to experience something directly- you wanted to connect with other people, face to face, you wanted to connect with something deeper inside yourself. You wanted to connect something bigger, larger, wider --the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part. And from that place of holiness, from there we can serve lovingly. From there we can live ethically, from there we can transform the world.
I believe that far from living in a time when these old rural churches are a historic remnant, these hills and valleys where our churches were planted over a century ago are filled with ministry that is calling out to us- filled with Easter eggs, if you will. The need for our Universalist tradition and for our beloved communities is so great, that an equally great discernment is needed. We have to be willing let go of everything we “should be doing” --all those ideas we hear at conferences, the ministries we witness at other churches, in order to hear our own destiny. Sometimes we have to have the courage to take our eyes off the crowd, and the faith to look for our wyrd, our ministry right here where we are.