Out with the Old, and In with the New

I.

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?

 

status quo

 

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:

 

PrriLogo1

 

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.

 

Millennials

 

 

 

II.

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.

 

bunyanBunyan

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.

 

The-Pilgrims-Progress-610713

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.

 

The holy Bible

 

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.

 

III.

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.

Amen.

 

 

READINGS USED IN TODAY’S GATHERING

Gathering Readings for June 8

 

 

Gathering Focus

 

“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.”

—Ann Landers

 

 

 

 

Thought Challenge

 

“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.”

—Melody Beattie

 

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.

 

Hope (First Sermon in Summer Series, “The Sacred and the Secular Are Inseparable”)

HOPE

I.

Someone has differentiated between wishful thinking and hope on the basis of effort.  Wishful thinking isn’t a bad thing, but it is marked by laziness when some kind of action might make a practical difference.  Hope, in contrast, is wanting something to change and putting energy into trying to make that happen.  I don’t have to work very hard to look around Silverside and see countless examples of hope functioning.  Anticipation in action.

June Eisley has given a chunk of her life taking public stands against public stands against wars and on occasion getting arrested for her audacity.  This is hope at work within June, not wishful thinking.

Marie Neal and a changing clan hope that hunger in the City of Wilmington can at least be minimized and ultimately defeated; therefore, on the thirteenth of every month they are down at Emmaneul Dining Room serving a hot, well-prepared meal to an average of 200 people.  This is hope at work within Marie and all of those who join her in this monthly effort.

I have no idea how I stumbled across it, but somehow a few weeks ago a website fell into my hands.  Maybe somebody wanted me to have a big laugh.  If so, it worked.  The article was about how teen girls in southern churches were supposed to get teen boys in those same churches to notice them.  Naturally, we would have expected to see some advice about smiling on such a list.  I also wasn’t surprised to see slinging hair back out of her eyes.  But I wasn’t prepared for the pointer I’ll never forget–to lick her lips every few minutes.  Isn’t that the function of lip gloss?  In any case, by the description of hope I gave initially, this set of suggestions if put into practice would qualify as hope on a young lady’s part–and not mere wishful thinking–that she would meet a young man.  If you’re older and you keep licking your lips, someone will pass you some chapstick or spread the rumor that cigarettes have taken their toll.

I thought I’d gotten to the age that I’d made the choice to be officially uncool and love intentionally paying attention only to those fads and new words I wanted to bother with instead of feeling that I had to stay up with things in order to identify with the groups I wanted feel connected to.  A nerd is kind of uncool and out of touch.  When I was in high school, we called what today would be called a nerd, a “greaser.”  I was one of those, but thought I’d shed the identity when I left home, studied, married, had kids, etc.  I was surprised, therefore, the other day when I sent my seminary dean what was supposed to have been a text-joke.  She texted back and said, “We nerds have strange senses of humor.”  Oh my gosh!  I didn’t think anyone had noticed yet that I was re-embracing my greaser past and all the uncoolness that went along with it.  Or maybe cool is actually contextual.

Anyway, knowing I’m out of step in some areas–a step or two at least!–I called my older son and told him about my summer sermon series, “The Sacred and the Secular Are Inseparable,” and asked him to tell me his favorite non-religious words of inspiration at the moment–especially relating to the subject of hope.  Jarrett is very cool, by the way.  He named the song you heard a little clip of earlier, “Sun” sung by Polyphonic Spree.  I’ve listened to it several times and totally don’t take it all in, but this much I do get:

Sun

Soon you’ll find your own way

Sun

Hope has come, you are safe

 

polyphonic2

 

Hope here has something to do with effort; in this case, with finding one’s own way and with safety.  I don’t think hope always leads to safety, but expending effort–as in finding one’s own way–is a requirement if the anticipation we feel is to be anything more than wishful thinking.

 

 

II.

The word, “secularism” was coined by George Jacob Holyoake, and he meant by the word “a form of opinion [that] concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life.” He added to the bare-bones definition:

Secularism is that which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of humanity to the highest possible point, as the immediate duty of life—which inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality apart from Atheism, Theism, or the Bible and which selects as its methods of procedure the promotion of human improvement by material means; it proposes these positive agreements as the common bond of union, to all who would regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service.

Secularism does not, inherently or of necessity, deny any religious claims, but it does separate the religious realm from the non-religious realm in order to try to arrive at core truths unembellished or uncolored by abstractions such as faith. Holyoake was not one of those secularists who affirmed much that was passed along by organized religion. One other quote from him: “Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable.”

Many secularists have no argument with religion per se, but they don’t think religious persons or institutions should be in any way privileged in whatever society they exist. Speaking as a professional “religionist” (is that a word?), I’m in full agreement with that much of secularism. Especially in a society that purports to espouse “separation of synagogue/church/mosque and state,” this is exactly as it should be.

In Professor Harvey Cox’s classic book, The Secular City, he argued that secularism can’t always be a bad thing. He gave two reasons that secularism can be a good thing: “It prevents powerful religions from acting on their theocratic pretensions. It allows people to choose among a wider range of worldviews.” Cox went on to say:

 

cox

 

God can be just as present in the secular as in the religious realms of life, and we unduly cramp the divine presence by confining it to some specially delineated spiritual or ecclesial sector. This idea has two implications. First, it suggests that people of faith need not flee from the allegedly godless contemporary world. God came into this world, and that is where we belong as well. But second, it also means that not all that is “spiritual” is good for the spirit (Cox’s paraphrase of parts of his book).

The impetus for this summer’s sermon series comes from a famous liberal Baptist preacher from last century.  One of his most remembered sermons is “The Sacred and the Secular Are Inseparable.”  How brilliant an insight is that!  Trying to tie all things or anything “sacred” to organized religion is compartmentalizing at its worst.  “Sacred” experiences, if you will, happen all the time in secular settings.  This is an important realization both for those who don’t find organized religion either sacred or inspiring as well as for those who gather and worship frequently, but who are in those specifically religious settings from one to four hours a week—depending on how long your rabbi, pastor/priest, or imam preaches.

 

 

III.

One of Sigmund Freud’s several books was titled, Moses and Monotheism.  If you were to pick up that book and start reading, you’d probably not expect Freud to display much enthusiasm for organized religion, and you’d be right on target.  Getting back to the idea that hope, as opposed to wishful thinking, involves as much effort as we can expend in a situation, I think it is worth a moment of our time to ponder a key quote from this book that ties in perfectly with our subject for today:

Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world, which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. But it cannot achieve its end.

Latch onto his perspective for a bit:  religion operates by means of a wish-world and, therefore, cannot achieve its own end.

If you are or ever have been or if you know some Christian fundamentalists, then you might well be informed about the concepts of millennialism.  Based on a single obscure reference in the book of Revelation to a thousand-year reign of Jesus at or near the end of time, doctrines of millennialism have developed.  Most conservative Christians believe in PRE-millennialism; this is the idea that Jesus will return to the earth—not as a helpless baby as was the case with his so-called “first coming,” but rather as its undisputed almighty ruler.  At this “second coming” Jesus, pre-millennialists say, all the faithful who have ever lived on the earth, both the already deceased as well as those living at the moment of this return will be caught up into heaven with him and taken to their eternal reward.  A one thousand year reign will follow during which time evil will be seriously trounced upon, and the reluctant as well as the wicked not destroyed as evil is dismantled will get a second opportunity to get right with God.  Failure to comply with this second opportunity means no way to avoid eternal alienation from God and palpable punishments.

Post-millennialism holds that the world becomes, in a one-thousand year time frame, such an idyllic place that Jesus sort of strolls back to earth to congratulate a rather perfected humanity.  It’s been a while since anyone of note held to this idea; I’m not sure who if anyone holds to it today.

A-millennialism refers to a belief that there will no be literalism thousand year reign of a returning Jesus.  The singular literary reference to it is obvious symbolism.

One of my seminary Greek professors, James Blevins, added another millennial option.  He called it “pan-millennialism,” by which he meant things will all pan out in the end!  This is a kind of hope.  The world is and becomes what people who hope for a better world do to make it such…or not.  I love that “pan-millennial” view and my beloved, late mentor, Dr. James Blevins.

You likely have heard it said in one way or another that only persons of faith can have hope or stated negatively, “Atheists have no hope.”  Oops!  Atheists are fighting back these days saying, “Balderdash!” to that uninformed slam.

One most articulate atheist who online identifies himself only by his first name, Derrick, explains why atheists and other secularists have mounds of hope.  He writes,

Atheists realize we have only one shot at this life. We get one chance. As a result, most atheists tend to think very actively about human existence, the relationship this singular existence has to other people, and the impact it will have in the long run….The promise of hope requires action. Thus, a proactive life begins with hope. It is mired in hope. It oozes hope.

Regardless of what causes you to hope, and don’t discount anything that does, here’s to oozing!

__________

Readings used in today’s Gathering

Gathering Focus (from Frances Moore Lappe and Elie Wiesel)

“Honest hope has an edge. It’s messy. It requires that we let go of all pat answers, all preconceived formulas, all confidence that our sailing will be smooth. It’s not a resting point. Honest hope is movement.” 

“Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.” 

 

Thought Challenge (from Emily Dickinson and Howard Zinn)

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul–and sings the tunes without the words–and never stops at all.”  

“Human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

Response of the People (from James Baldwin, Pearl S. Buck, George Washington Carver, Allan Chalmers, Cicero, Norman Cousins, Pope John XXIII, Aung San Suu Kyi, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

One:  Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

Many:  Life without idealism is empty indeed.

One:  Where there is no vision, there is no hope.

Many:  While there’s life there’s hope.

One: The rand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.

Many:  One has no right to hope without endeavor.

One:  The capacity for hope is the most significant fact of life. It provides human beings with a sense of destination and the energy to get started.

Many:  The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.

All:  Consult not your fears but your hopes and dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what is still possible for you to do.