Challenging the status quo can be lonely and painful. Most of us are not terribly comfortable with those who refuse to conform to societal norms to the degree we have decided to do. And, yet, but for nonconformists, nothing would ever have changed, would it have?
The only religious movements in the world would be polytheistic, and there would never have been an ounce of scientific progress; nor would there be, in all probability, this interesting approach to governance that we call “democracy.” Marketers around the world use as a foundation for their success, the desire—sometimes the need—any number of people have to change in order to be like someone else, especially if the someone else is rich and/or famous.
Students in junior high and high school who don’t fit in with the mainstream group—for whatever reason, any little reason—find support and acceprance hanging with other misfits like themselves, however small the group. Even so, sometimes the alienation the nonconforming students feel grows into anger and resentment, and we end up with a Columbine tragedy or at least a culture of bullying.
I sent out an e-blast this week to share an article I’d stumbled over in the Huffington Post online. The writer made the daring proposal that for the first time since who knows when, fundamentalism in the United States might be losing ground to more liberal expressions of faith expression and religious seeking. I now have one wall in my office plastered with copies of this article! Wrote its author:
There has been a largely unnoticed but radical movement over the last decade during which the spiritual fire has shifted to more progressive Christians and that has the potential to change both the political and spiritual landscape of America. I had a feeling this was happening but was shocked during the past few weeks to note the extent to which the more progressive Christian leaders are speaking out and being heard in their effort to impact the public square. Pastors and priests have spoken out on blocked Medicaid expansions, gun control, and climate change.
I nearly fell out right at that point in my reading, but there was more I had to take in!
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops continued their push for immigration reform by celebrating a Mass on Capitol Hill, building on the powerful Mass they celebrated weeks earlier at the U.S.-Mexico border. The United Church of Christ continues to push, claiming that their religious right to perform gay marriages is being infringed upon in North Carolina and protesting the FCC’s proposed new rules on Net Neutrality, while over a thousand clergy wrote a letter urging Congress to change drug sentencing laws…..Who could have foreseen that Pope Francis would follow immediately after Pope Benedict?….None of this is to say that the hardline religious conservative voice and influence has vanished. There are many on the religious right who still find traction on issues such as the contraception mandate, rallying against science and climate change, and perceived threats on religious freedom….Perhaps the change is as simple as the pendulum swinging back after years to the left….
In any case, the Public Religion Research Institute explained:
If you’re using a generational snapshot today as a proxy for the future, it is is safe to say that religious progressives hold a stronger appeal among Millennials.
Reaching the Millenntials is hitting pay dirt for seekers hoping to grow their spiritual communities. Doing things in the same old ways will not capitalize on this opportunity, however.
A political non-conformist might do well enough all alone somewhere, but if she or he wishes to challenge the status quo and effect political change, like-minded non-conformists must join together for the sake of impact and influence. Same thing with a religious nonconformist. In our democracy, there is separation of church and state—well, at least, there’s supposed to be; there used to be. It should be proper to discuss nonconformity in these two realms in completely different contexts; however, in those cultures where there is no legal or other provision for the separation of church and state, this is not the case. In those societies, to be politically nonconforming is, of necessity, to be religiously nonconforming.
We as a congregation were once in possession of a replica of the chair illustrated in John Bunyan’s pivotal work, The Pilgrim’s Progress. This chair was brought from England and presented to the congregation in 1897 or 1898 by Thomas F. Bayard Sr., first United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, which is the court of the British sovereign. Queen Victoria was the monarch when Bayard served and made this presentation to our church.
John Bunyan is an ideal person to bring up today because he was a religious nonconformist who suffered considerably for refusing to conform to the legalized religious standards of England. Bunyan’s allegorical novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress, was initially published in 1678. He wrote the first draft of the book in 1675 while he was in prison for having violated what was called the Conventicle Act. The Conventicle Act prohibited more than five people (unless all were family members of one household) from holding any religious services except under the auspices of the Church of England, which among other things meant the necessary use of the Book of Common Prayer. Penalties for infractions ranged from fines to imprisonment, and upon a third offense a person could be forced to leave the country.
Charles II was King of England at the time, and while his Roman Catholic leanings motivated his own efforts at religious toleration for non-Anglicans, the Anglicans were clearly in control of the country. Bunyan was a Baptist preacher who didn’t believe that he should be spiritually bound to any state church. The law of land, though King Charles himself might have been tolerant of Bunyan, required that Bunyan be imprisoned.
In the year 1675, Baptists had only been in the world sixty-three or sixty-four years. The first Baptist church known in history can be traced to Spitalfields in the east end of London; founded in 1611 or 1612 during the reign of King James I of England. Baptists appear on the world scene just as the King James Version of the Bible is initially published.
Baptists spoke out against the lack of separation of church and state. They spoke out against any persecution or harassment–of any kind–by a government trying to homogenize religious doctrine and practice. They spoke out for freedom of conscience and the right of an individual to interpret scripture for himself or herself without the involvement of any intermediary, priest or prelate. The bottom line is this, though, if diversity is not welcomed and if any person or group believes that she or he or it can establish a doctrinal position to which all must be bound, the first Baptists wouldn’t abide it.
Someone has said,
A worldly lifestyle, seeking pleasure, wealth, fame, and material comforts, will inevitably distract one from pursuing any spiritual purpose. Hence the aspirant must separate [herself] himself from the world or maintain some detachment from it. Separation from the world can be achieved either by physical isolation in a monastic community or by living an outwardly ordinary life yet without attachment to its prevailing values.
Don’t be conformed to this world, in other words, but, instead, be a nonconformist. Be a nonconformist in this world based on a transformation that grows out of a metamorphosis of your thinking so that you yourself may discern what is good and beautiful and mature.
There is a saying in Taoism:
The sage patterns himself on Heaven, prizes the Truth, and does not allow himself to be cramped by the vulgar. The stupid man does the opposite of this. He is unable to pattern himself on Heaven and instead frets over human concerns. He does not know enough to prize the Truth but instead, plodding along with the crowd, he allows himself to be changed by vulgar ways, and so is never content.
Change is probably going to come about–however hard some may fight against it. We, then, want to be on the side of what is changing for the good. And yet, even in a democracy, there is tremendous pressure to conform in certain key ways. The proper expressions of patriotism, for example, are prescribed by the patriotic expressions approval committees. If you’re a patriot, you must never question the perspective or the demands of a president who prays every day. And if your sense that you must speak out against something tearing the nation apart such as the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, there are those who will ostracize you and call you un-American and un-Christian.
People who are willing to live by the lure of selfless morality will typically look like oddballs and misfits and not like the status quo keepers. If we always find ourselves on the side of the majority, and if we’ve trained ourselves never to pay attention when something within us presses us to buck the system, never to see or speak out against the wrong we know exists, never to call injustice what it is, never to demand institutional renewal, then we are card-carrying members of the Society of the Status Quo. How quaint.
Quaint is finally displayed on mantels or in museums or in oversized coffeetable books. Quaint is not going to reach or ever have the chance to embrace the up and comings, who are focused on today and tomorrow—almost never yesterday. This isn’t exceptionally tasteful to many of us, perhaps, but the people most likely to participate in a community like ours are those who stand in line overnight at Target to get the newest edition of a video game player. They are loving T Mobile’s new program in which one no longer has to keep a cell phone two years in order to break even financially; with the rapid technology changes bombarding us, T Moblers can get the latest and greatest every six months.
If we can even get the Millennials in the door here twice, and the look and feel of the Gathering the second time is too much like the first time, many of them will never be back. Out with the old, and in the with the new. And I don’t mean people.
READINGS USED IN TODAY’S GATHERING
Gathering Readings for June 8
“Finish every day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt, crept in.
Forget them as soon as you can; tomorrow is a new day.
Begin it well and serenely, with too too high a spirit
to be cumbered with your old nonsense.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it.”
“Letting go helps us to to live in a more peaceful state of mind and helps restore our balance. It allows others to be responsible for themselves and for us to take our hands off situations that do not belong to us. This frees us from unnecessary stress.”
The trees that get through a storm don’t try to stand up straight and tall and erect. They allow themselves to bend and be blown with the wind. They understand the power of letting go. Those trees and those branches that try too hard to stand up strong and straight are the ones that break.
— Julia Butterfly Hill
Response of the People (The Buddha, Tao Te Ching, Deepak Chopra, Frederick Douglas, Daphne Rose Kingma, Raymond Lindquist, Anais Nin, Gail Sheehy, Henry David Thoreau)
One: Courage is the power to let go of the familiar.
Many: We can only lose what we cling to.
One: We have to deal with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.
Many: Holding on is believing that there’s only a past; letting go is knowing that there’s a future.
One: Anything we cannot transform into something marvelous, we should let go.
Many: When we let go of what we are, we become what we might be.
One: Creativity can be described as letting go of certainties.
Many: We should never look back unless we are planning to go that way.
All: We can use memories, but we must not allow memories to use us.