The End of This…the Beginning of What
May 20, 2018
I used to think I had a thing for old recipes. I’ve learned that this self-observation (like most of my impressions of myself) was wrong. I’ve actually followed “old recipes” probably twice. I once faithfully reproduced a “clam loaf” from the recipe book produced annually by the Deaconesses of the First Baptist Church of Phoenix, Arizona. I don’t know if it was my fault or the recipe’s, or maybe even the concept (Who’s supposed to make a Clam Loaf two thousand miles from the nearest seawater bay?)but the result was inedible, and a little scary, and I arrived at the party to which I was to bring it, holding a can of compensatory Spanish Cockles from Treasure Island market. And once I made an authentic antique “Sauce Piquant” with bone marrow, spooned it over a roast and coughed politely as murmurs ‘round the table confirmed my impression that it tasted like old fish. We ate a lot of bread.
What I’ve realized is that I like dreaming about what old dishes would be. I like imagining where they would have been eaten and by whom, how they might have been servced, what conversation and convention punctuate their eating, what time of day, what weather, what energies drive eaters to that table and from it. I do like reading the instructions. I just don’t like to follow them. I like to take what I can. It’s sometimes a particularly good way of describing one step of a process…or perhaps the suggestion of a way of life long past –involving long lunches of white wine and wild strawberries—or a really wonderful general idea for a dish, with a lovely, evocative name.
Salisbury steak is such an example: A good idea and a good name, although its reputation as a TV dinner has stained the prettiness somewhat. Salisbury steak, the preparation—hand-chopped meat formed into a patty and cooked in fat—probably originated in unnamed kitchens wherever cattle grazed. It existed, we know, on menus of fine Swiss and French restaurants here and in the native lands in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as biftek hache’, Hamburg steak or hache’ de boeuf.
[The new name “Salisbury steak” appeared in 1888 in a recipe by one Dr. Salisbury a physician with potent and extreme ideas about diet and health.]
At home, it was my mother’s dress-up version of hamburger meatloaf, the recipe for which I have in hand and would gladly share. It begins: 1 1/2lb ground beef, ½ cup evaporated milk…no, I’m sorry….it begins: 2cups Kellogg’s Rice Crispies cereal, then evaporated milk, chopped onion, pepper, mustard, Worchester sauce (now there’s a spicy notion) one egg – all combined until the rice crispies soften. Stir it up, mix in the ground meat. Shape into a loaf and bake for an hour or so, drizzled with bacon drippings and served with Heinz chili sauce. For company, the loaf was parceled into patties and grilled very well, plattered, and sauced with 1 can of Campbells condensed golden mushroom soup. Years later, mother discovered prepared horseradish and chives which she added sparsely to a carton of sour cream as a special treat.
Memories….culinary…nostalgic shape our understanding not only of the past but of our present, lingering, and the longer they linger the harder they are to dislodge.
I have been an advocate for local food for a long time. I worked part-time at a food co-op while I was in seminary in the 60’s. I still shop at co-ops in Milwaukee and at the neighborhood farmer’s market. Although Jack and I had big garden for years when we lived in the country beyond Dodgeville, we supported to CSA’s in area and
bought lamb and pork and beef from a farm run by long-time friends, (for years I knew the names of the cows whose parts were in my freezer).and now we get eggs and lamb from a woman who knows woman who lives out toward Lake Geneva.
I like to keep my food dollars close to the ground. But more than that, I like the connection with the land, with those who grow my food, with what sustains me.
The network of gardening, farming, butchering, shopping and cooking that keeps me fed is important. I think this is holy work. This is community. This is communion.
So I have a story for you. It’s from the time we lived over in Iowa County, Wisconsin. It is a story of the land, of the people on that land, of their connection with it, with each other, and in a way with the divine. It is a story of common bonds, of very ordinary and extraordinary circumstances of life. It is about the sharing of daily bread. The names have been omitted here to protect the not-so-innocent. I don’t have the article in hand, but this is years, but this is essentially as it was told to me.
It came to me from my friend David Kraemer who was at the time an editor with the Ames Tribune in Ames, Iowa.
The story begins:
Headline: Heresy in the Mackey Methodist Church.
Shame. A few years ago, someone suggested that in the name of convenience, for the sake of time, they use instant potatoes for the annual chicken and mashed potatoes dinner served to the Boone Chapter Lions Club. Devil, get thee behind me! There shall be no false spuds here. No, the annual Lions club dinner, served each year to an appreciative crowd of about 30, was righteously authentic.
Green beans and bacon, real mashed potatoes, gravy, Jell-O salad, homemade pie and fried chicken — chicken raised within two miles of the church — cooked by the women of the congregation and served up on long tables with table cloths and coffee and rolls in the church basement.
“This is a little piece of Americana,” says the church president. “There’s a very personal relationship with the community and with the land here.”
Very personal. There are 16 members of the Mifflin Methodist Church. Two new couples, with kids, brags the Reverend. They meet every Sunday, 9:30 for Sunday school and 10:30 for service. A timeless faith keeps them coming.
The president is an example. He grew up here. Upstairs in the sanctuary, standing in the rows of painted wooden pews, beside the hand-made quilt with the stitched-in names of congregants, he remembers, as a boy, tossing wads of paper from the balcony during Sunday school at whoever sat below.
Outside the window are tall trees planted years ago by the Methodist youth and by the president himself. The church yard holds his friends and relatives. Two newly painted planters sprout geraniums.
“Guess what they are,” the Reverend says wickedly. “The bases of the old outhouse, a two-holer.”
The men are steeped in stories. This church was built in 1885. The basement was dug underneath, by hand, in 1949.
The pews are painted now because dresses and trousers stuck to the original varnish.
In the 1970s, the president counted 99 worshipers one Sunday before his brother walked in to make 100.
In the 1980s, the furnace plugged and blew, everything was covered in black soot, “It was Satanic in here,” he says. But elbow grease and a cleaning crew restored everything to its godly state.
You can feel close to God here. A patchwork of green and black earth rolls across the fields outside, purple sky reigns overhead.
This church is the last rock upon which the town of Mackey once stood. The story goes that a man came to town to buy dynamite one day long ago. He had a shotgun. Somehow, the gun went off, that sparked the dynamite, and in an instant, the town disappeared.
The church is all that’s left.
“It survives on the fortitude of its members,” says the Reverend. “That and a couple of big events,” he says. “ One is this here dinner served to the Lions. This year, each member of the women’s circle brought three chickens and two pies. And one brought 50 salads.”
The other event is a chicken and noodle supper served to the wider community — indeed, they’ll take anybody — on the third Wednesday of October. Dinner is served from 5 to 7 and a bazaar follows at 7:30 with a live auction of handmade items, the same as it has been for 100 years.
And as for the chickens. These are not chickens that have ever known cellophane or Styrofoam or the little diaper thing they throw in the package to soak up whatever leaks out. These are not chickens whose lives have been spent, wasted, stacked 12 high in long rows in a hot metal building with electric lights and fans blowing day in and day out, not chickens that have made the long drive to eternity in a crate on a semi, or whose corpses have been subjected to a washing machine device that removes all the feathers.
No, these are chickens that have known green grass, laundry on the line, dogs barking at cars and the steady rhythm of chores.
These are chickens raised on corn and table scraps, chickens whose eggs have fed children in jeans with PF Flyers on their feet and a bike in the yard, lying there where it was dropped when dad hollered from the barn. Or at least they are the progeny of such chickens, their owners now as leathery as old rhubarb leaves.
Even so, these are chickens of brighter days. These are chickens of opportunity, American chickens, free and richly blessed. Even in death, these are chickens that ran free.
And there it ends.
I like that story. Food for the body is food for the soul. There is much beauty and tradition there. It touches on things that have shaped big parts of my life. I have told it to illustrate several sermons now. I have mined it each time for different meaning.
One takeaway this time lies in the tiny number of people who still call themselves members of the Mackey Methodist Church. I checked in last month. Meeting only once a month, I’m told. Only as many as nine people usually attend
Ours is a small church, too. We are doing far more than serving chicken dinners. But this story is a reminder. We might think of the Mackey Methodist Church as quaint. I think of it as a warning. What separates us from wasting away to 16 members…and then 9 and then…
In fact, we, as a movement, are to organized religion writ large as the Mackey Methodist Church is to its denomination. Forget General Assembly, if you put all of us together in one place, say Yasgur’s Farm, maybe, for Woodstock in the 60’s there were more there than we are – worldwide. Or in more contemporary terms, there were almost as many bratwursts eaten over four days in May at Brat Fest in Madison than there are Unitarian Universalists in the entire United States. We are tiny.
For two centuries, sympathetic observers from Thomas Jefferson to Harvard scholar Diana Eck have said that Unitarian Universalism can be the religion of the future: not that we are, but that we can be. Yet we remain a small religious minority. In spite of being a justice-seeking faith, in spite of the ministries to which we are committed, in spite of the marketing we have done, we have not grown. No matter how you slant the data, we have remained either relatively unchanged for decades (if you use raw numbers) or we have shrunk considerably (if viewed as a percentage of the total U.S. population). Either way it does not look good; some might say it doesn’t even look promising.
A perfect storm of social changes is taking shape whose effects we are late to recognize and absorb. The waves of Hispanics and Asians and multiracial Americans reshaping the country’s population are full of young people, who by some measures already outnumber their white counterparts. The trend was punctuated by the arrival in 2011 of the ﬁrst “majority-minority” birth cohort, the ﬁrst in which the majority of U.S. babies were nonwhite minorities. Consequently, the racial makeup of the nation’s younger population is beginning to contrast sharply with that of baby boomers and seniors.
The U.S. Census Bureau projected in 2009 that members of racial and ethnic minorities will make up a majority of the country’s population by 2042, which means that we Unitarian Universalists with our North Atlantic look—as reflected in our demographics, theology, and epistemology—will grow more cut off from the U.S. population, unless we start reflecting our society’s true diversity. Meanwhile, several national surveys have revealed the quick rise of the “Nones”—the contingent of young adults who claim no religious affiliation. “Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith,” reported the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2010. “Compared with their elders today, fewer say that religion is very important in their lives.” These changes in our society will transform Unitarian Universalism. They may push us into decline and irrelevancy, or they may force us—if it’s not already too late—to step back and start afresh.
We are welcoming, we say. Open to marginalized peoples all over. And that may be what saves us. It may be. But we might need something more.
I want to be clear, we use “welcoming” in a very specific way in this church to signal especially that sexual identity, gender and orientation are not barriers to inclusion in our community. In no way am I challenging that. But welcome, in a more general sense, might be not enough.
I read a while back a blog by Rob Moss, a Lutheran minister in Colorado titled, “The end of the welcoming church.”
“We’ve decided to quit being a welcoming church,” he writes. “No kidding. We’re giving it up. … “Like so many churches, we’ve sunk an amazing amount of time and energy into becoming a welcoming church. We changed worship styles, we trained greeters and ushers, we wore name tags, we percolated coffee, we went to workshops on hospitality, we put our friendliest people in the most prominent places on Sunday mornings. But we’ve realized we’ve been misplacing our emphasis. So we’re no longer going to do it.”
He’s being sarcastic, of course. I have to be careful of that.
What he writes next is more straightforward: “Here’s what we’re doing instead. We are becoming an Inviting Church. That’s different.”
Welcome in this sense is passive. Welcome means we wait for unsuspecting passersby to wander in. Inviting…”Inviting” means we have to get out there and do something.
It means we leave the comfort of our congregational home-court advantage. It means that the main activity doesn’t happen in our worship space when people drop in, but in the neighborhood when we go out. Inviting isn’t so much welcoming them into our place, but going out into their place and meeting them there.
So I am reminded by the Mackey Methodist Church to be more than welcoming, to be out there in the community, to be inviting. To meet people where they live.
BUT there’s more.
A few days after this column ran in the paper, David, the author and editor, received a distressing call. Turns out things had hatched that he had not planned. The chickens, confessed a very apologetic woman from the church, had come from the supermarket…and…the potatoes. Right, they were from Or’Ida.
In journalism, that kind of error is inexcusable. For this story in particular, written by the editor of the paper himself, and one in which he had taken considerable license in waxing on and on about these chickens, this was disaster.
He couldn’t blame his sources. The responsibility was his. He might have guessed the church members believed that the fiction of local chickens was harmless enough and that the truth of community and the need to sustain the church trumped a little elaboration. But that just fed his assumptions so he failed to keep asking questions.
And so that’s a second takeaway — to keep asking questions. It is an old rule of journalism which he should not have forgotten and one neither you nor I should forget either
Here in this church, we are the religion of questions, right? Unitarian Universalism and the skepticism of a good reporter go hand in hand.
From the time of Servetus, through Joseph Priestly, through the Enlightenment and its influence on the framers of this nation, through the fertile 1800s, through the rise of humanism in the 20th Century, and even now, as the light of liberal religion shines in stormy and nonsensical world, reason has been our guide.
We are a church of no creeds, no inflexible answers. We believe that critical thinking is not just allowed, it is necessary. Asking questions is how religion stays alive in the world, how it stays relevant.
But the questioning is not just of the culture in which we find ourselves, not just in the dogma of others. It must also be a questioning of our own assumptions. This was David Kraemer’s failing in the Methodist Church column. He failed to challenge not just the evidence before him, but even his own happy narrative, especially when all the “facts” seemed to line up so perfectly with his chicken-dinner world view.
“That should have tipped me off right away,” he said when he told me the story. “Comfort is an deadly affliction.”
So the third takeaway is this: that the “crucible of reason” notion may be of our own fabrication. David needed to ask himself what story he was telling himself (and others) that wasn’t quite true. We have to ask ourselves, what stories we tell ourselves that also are not true.
In being who we are, we have to ask, what signals are we sending that we don’t realize?
Fred Muir, the distinguished UU pastor from Anapolis, Maryland delivered a riveting Berry Street lecture in 2012 in which he commented on our UU fascination with Ralph Waldo Emerson and “self-reliance” as a core spiritual conviction. “Trust thyself, every heart vibrates to that iron string”…”No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.” – “Saint Emerson” Muir calls him. (Of course we don’t really have saints in this group, but if we did Ralph would be close enough) And, he described Unitarian-Universalism as the iChurch – much like the iPhone: a personal piece of technology to be used for whatever purpose I want without regard for the community to which we are committed in trust and mutual support.
Now he has edited a collection of essays by UU thinkers across the country. It is titled “Turning Point, essays on a new Unitarian Universalism.” The essays all riff on Muir’s thesis, put forth first in a Berry Street lecture from General Assembly in 2012, and asserts a UU “Trinity of Errors.” A trinity that has been with us for a very long time.
The errors we make, he says, are the errors of Individualism, Exceptionalism, and an Allergy to Authority.
First, individualism. Not just a respect for individuals but an exultation of the individual. The inherent worth and dignity of the individual is not just our First Principle as UUs: often it is our defining principle. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” Emerson said. True, but we frequently overlook another strand of our tradition in our Association’s Principles and Purposes, another story about ourselves that can deepen and grow our future. It is not the language of individualism, not of the iChurch, but of covenant, of community: “As free congregations we promis[e] to one another our mutual trust and support.”
For all its appeal and its influence in American culture, individualism is not sustaining: Individualism will not serve the greater good, a principle to which we Unitarian Universalists have also committed ourselves. There is little-to-nothing about the ideology and theology of individualism that encourages people to work and live together, to create and support institutions that serve common aspirations and beloved principles.
We cannot do both covenant and individualism; individuality, yes, but not individualism. Articulating and living our Principles as a commitment to covenant—creating and sustaining a community by “promising to one another our mutual trust and support”—this takes extra effort.
Two related “errors” deny the promise of covenant.
One is Unitarian Universalist exceptionalism. We hear the inflection of UU exceptionalism from the pulpit, in newcomers’ classes, from Sunday greeters, from those who are earnestly trying to explain our way of religion to the uninformed. Exceptionalism, the attitude that we are – and of course we really are – different. That if only everyone was like us, thought like us, acted like us, recycled like us, voted like us, shunned the Bible like us, wore relaxed clothes like us on a Sunday morning, then everything would be fine.
This, too, is not far removed from the tribal roots of our larger culture. As Unitarian Universalists own a big part of it our cultural heritage. We get it, don’t we? We understand the problem, whatever it is. We see things pretty well and we believe that things could be better, and we think we see a way forward, and we say: “You should do it this way, too. You should be a part of such a group – not like those other, exclusive religions that don’t get it – you should be the exception, like us.”
And the exception walls us off from the other. It divides us.
We may experience Unitarian-Universalism as unique and even saving, but it is not the only way. We must stay conscious of how we explain, defend, and share our perspective lest we come across as elitist, politely insulting, degrading, even humiliating of others.
Exceptionalism is a barrier to sharing Unitarian Universalism’s good news.
Another error is our allergy to authority.
Our personal and institutional pasts give some insight into this issue. Our histories have found us under the heel of systems of authority; many of us left faith communities that made no room for different views or disagreements. Our institutional and personal pasts explain why we take inspiration from Emerson’s powerful words on the sanctity of the individual: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. . . . Absolve you to yourself and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”
50 years ago, when I was a gay, disenfranchised man, these words were radical and empowering—I was at an age and place when I needed Emerson’s counsel. Now I see that what was good for me alone was not healthy for community growth and stability, then or now. Conflating the narrow path of individualism with the promise of community health is a misleading and destructive formula we have been using in our congregations for too long.
Allergy to authority. This is the hardest one for me to swallow. Do any of you remember that bumper sticker that said “Question Authority.” I never had one but it was one of my favorites. It still is. I have questioned authority personally and professionally I think my whole life.
But what has been good for individuals in our fellowships and churches has not necessarily been good for the whole. Our habit of constantly picking at anything that resembles structure or a hierarchy, is a radically self-centered view.
The “herding cats” joke we tell, it’s not doing us any good. It might be killing us, nine times over.
Unitarian Universalist anxiety about power and authority makes it hard for us to welcome and listen to a diversity of interests and passions without being distracted and immobilized. It makes it hard for us to move forward, “promising our mutual trust and support” for the common good while walking as a community with space for those who disagree. We cannot grow and deepen and shape a healthy future when we distrust each other and our leaders so deeply.
Individualism, exceptionalism and allergy to authority. The errors of our way.
But if we give them up. If we actually let go. Then what?
A trinity of promises. The poetry of our roots. It’s right there, has been all along. What we need to do is retell the story, to find those luminous truths within us, just as deep as our shadowed errors.
Generosity, there in our hearts.
Pluralism, sure as we are born.
And imagination, freely running wild.
We are a generous people. Generous in our extension of worth and dignity to all people. Generous in our belief of many windows one light. Generous in not just our tolerance of other religions but our pointed search for truth and meaning within them.
Pluralism. Back to our American Roots. We are, as a religion, as a nation, a people of immigrants. We are come-outers, alike in our flight from whatever it is that we were, now together in wherever it is that we are. Walls be damned, the country is heading toward a multi-ethnic future. We, as UUs, would do so, too. If only we were not so darn’ white. But we have worked toward this, we have welcomed the other, for decades. Even our chalice speaks to our work to release the captives of World War II into the light of the free world. We can do this.
And imagination. This, too, goes deep. It was imagination that brought Servetus to question the doctrine of the trinity, and imagination that led the Universalists to reject the severity of hell. It was imagination that allowed Olympia Brown to come to southeastern Wisconsin as the first woman ordained anywhere to a major denomination and preach a new gospel of hope and power.
And it is imagination that allowed our two movements to come together in 1961. And imagination that allows us to thrive even here in this corner of the state where the forces of economics and politics sometimes seem stacked against us.
It is imagination that will allow us to see a future for our church, for this church, for the world we live in. Imagination that will lead us to make a difference. It is imagination that will let us find new people, new minds, new ideas to bring to this church. And imagination that will help us come up with the few simple words we need to invite them in.
None of this happens by accident. It happens by hard work and deliberation. We will not be religion of brighter days if we don’t work to make it so. But we have a leg up, because we are the church of questions. We are the church for whom all assumptions are scrutinized. The church for whom doubt is the attendant of truth.
So what to do?
Invite people. Whoever they are. Coworkers, neighbors, friends, people in line at the grocery store. Your generosity of spirit, your wide open arms, your free and wild imagination, this is all you need to draw them in.
Ask questions. Don’t assume. Keep asking why and how and where and what’s happening behind the parted doors at 17th and Iowa.
And most of all question yourself. The stories you tell others, the stories you tell yourself.
The legacy of Unitarianism and Universalism is just this, I think – to know the errors of our ways (and our recipes tried and true with or without Rice Crispies) and seek to correct them.
Mackey Methodist Church failed because the story it told was not about true things. As we tell our stories, we must make them about true things or we will fail to be about Truth.
Eighteen years into a new century, knowing that a storm of social transformation is coming, we are in grave danger if we continue writing a fake-news story of life at UUFD.
But that story is over; it won’t take us where we must go.
My friend, Diana Butler Bass, a historian and consultant to Protestant churches, notes that while 30 percent of Americans identify as “spiritual but not religious,” 48 percent say they are “spiritual and religious.” She says: “Large numbers of Americans are hankering for experiential faith whereby they can connect with God, the divine, or wonder as well as with their neighbors and that leads to a more profound sense of meaning in the world.”
Yes. She is right. What we need for a healthy future…what we all need for full and complete lives… is a beloved community, a community of caring and compassion and justice inside and beyond our congregations. This we can, this we must, begin to be here…now.
May it be so.