Seeker Perspective: Bad Websites, Bad Topics and Bad Preaching

I knew I wanted to attend church this morning somewhere fairly nearby, so I began looking at UU web sites to see what the offerings were.

First of all, I shouldn’t have to search and search through a church website to find the Sunday service information. Let’s make that easy, folks.

Second, please don’t provide directions to your church but fail to note its address or what STATE it’s in (some of us have GPS systems — we don’t need directions, we need an address).

Please include pertinent dates on your site. What year am I looking at? And why direct me to a February calendar full of your church’s activities and meetings but no worship information when I click the Worship link? I’m a seeker, not a member. I don’t care if AA meets on Monday nights and the Knitting Circle on Wednesdays. I want to know what’s happening on Sunday morning — when and where.

Preachers, we need to remember how uninteresting it is to someone who hasn’t been to church in a long time to see that the sermon of the day is about someone we’ve never heard of, or dedicated to a friend of the congregation’s we’ve never met. This kind of insider approach keeps me, the seeker, away from your church. Consider framing the sermon in a broader way and then using [insert admirable dead Unitarian here] as your chief illustration. Something like, “The Spiritual Strength and Suffering of Individualism” rather than “Emersonian Individualism: Two Views.” (At least most people have heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson!). I, the seeker, don’t care to hear a book report or a historical lecture. What application will your sermon have to my life, relationships, work, meaning-making? Don’t tell me what book you read to prep your manuscript — tell me what I can look forward to learning for the good of my soul!! *

Snark and negativity do not make for inviting sermon titles for this seeker. Am I going to a college debate or a worship service? Cognitive dissonance; please avoid it and I promise to do so as well in the future.

When I finally did find a service (not a UU church) this morning, I wound up walking out after half an hour. Why? First, one of the ministers was, in a word, simpering. While I certainly support all worship leaders using the quotidian grace of our lives to enrich our liturgical illustrations, I am deeply uncomfortable when parents use their children or family lives to provide cutesy — I’m sure they intend them to be accessible — analogies for God’s presence in the world. Cutesy theology is insipid theology. As an intentional non-parent, I am especially intolerant of this transparent ploy for my warm understanding. Any prayer that could be fairly described as “darling” by a kinder set of ears is no prayer for me. It isn’t that I don’t honor parenting, it’s that I know damned well that parenting and family life is not darling. It’s intense, it’s exhausting, it is blood and guts real life and radical love. I want to say to the minister I saw this morning, Don’t you dare get up there and nervously flip your bangs out of your face like a teenager and diminish your own and God’s grandeur like that.

A student minister gave the sermon. He badly needs a diction coach to correct his sloppy, muckle-mouthed enunciation (a slight lisp is not the problem: a lazy mouth is the problem). He even more urgently needs a lesson in how to structure and deliver a religious message, and a solid dressing down for insulting the congregation by ascending the pulpit unprepared and with a heavy reliance on flippancy. When a preacher invites the congregation before sermonizing to pray with him that the words of his mouth and the meditations of his heart be pleasing to the Lord, and that the Word may reach the people, you know you’re in trouble when he mumbles and fumbles his way even through that preface. There is no excuse for this, young preacher. If you intend to begin your sermons with this invocation, learn it. Own it. Deliver it as though you mean it or stay out of the pulpit until you do.

After the young preacher (dressed, according to my male friend, like a gangster) claimed for the third or fourth time what a hypocrite he was to dare to preach on this topic and then said he had no right to be up in the pulpit, I whispered to my friend, “Then don’t get up there!”
We left.

Preachers of every age and experience level: If you don’t think you have “the right” to be in the pulpit, stay out of it. If you think any of us is preaching from a place of total purity, get over it. We are all spiritual failures and we are all hypocrites. We do not preach from a place of perfection but of faith, hope and love. We preach because we have a deep desire to understand, to be seared by conscience, to experience God’s grace, to find a way to help build the Kingdom of God. No one wants or needs to hear how unworthy we are. How unsure, yes. How confused, fine. How afraid, certainly. How vulnerable, of course. Unworthy to address the congregation, no.

My God, what a thing to say. What a cop-out. What an offense to the worshiper, who has come trusting that the preacher is prepared internally and externally to impart some wisdom.

A Bronx cheer to “I’m not worthy.”

* I have TOTALLY done this myself in the past and am going to try to avoid it in the future now that I see how uninteresting it sounds to the seeker.

She Feels Called To Reconciliation

Cindy wrote in response to my earlier post, “The Whole Rick Warren Thing,”

Lesbian UU here.

And utterly unruffled by the Rick Warren pick. I’m not feeling any consternation. No anger at all.

I feel a growing spark of hope.

These days, I feel called — very powerfully called — to reach out in reconciliation. This is a time for GLBT folks to really show up in our communities and help the sick, the poor, the elderly and the children. My stripe of marriage has no bearing on my ability to do good works.

I somehow feel that, if I could make good on the goodwill that runneth over from the election, I should do it. If I can be visibly gay, visibly religious and visibly ready to bridge the distance between myself and the conservative end of the religious spectrum, I might be doing a fraction of that thing called “God’s work.”

I’m very moved by Cindy’s words. Not because she’s saying something that I agree with more than I agree with those who are angry and hurt by Obama’s choice of Rick Warren, but because she speaks so unapologetically about her sense of calling.

Unitarian Universalists are very good at sharing opinions — what we think – but if we are to mature as a people and live authentically into our covenantal promise to support one another in the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” we will have to become more accustomed to bearing witness to each other’s deep calling.

We have a long history of sharing our convictions through intellectual argument and rational persuasion (that has often been quite irrational, but I digress). I am excited by the possibility of a new era where we may speak of calling, of discernment and of how God may be working through our lives.

As my friend and colleague Adam says, “Rock ON.”

Walter Bruegemann on Covenant As Subversive Paradigm

I feel more than a little bit stupid that I have never seen this article before. Here I am writing my doctoral dissertation on the relevance of covenant in the 21st century church and wondering why I should even bother now, given that Bruegemann has just said pretty much everything I want to say in eight pages.

I remember feeling this way about seventeen years ago when I was trying to articulate my personal theology and came across Emerson’s essay “The OverSoul.” After I read it I felt mighty dumb for having believed that I had ever had one original theological idea. I started divinity school and people would ask me for my Big Statement of Faith, you know, and I just wanted to hand out “The OverSoul” and say, “What he said.”

I still feel that much that way about my BFF Waldo’s essay although my theological ideas have been greatly influenced by becoming a Christian shortly after discovering it. You might wonder why. All I can say is that it was not a conversion experience so much as it was a response to my direct experience of God’s presence in my life and in the world.

I believe that creating a covenant is a way a community can respond to their shared experience of God’s reality and presence.

And I keep reading because frankly kids, I’m terrified to start the writing process!! But I’m presenting a chapter in class next week, so it’s time to put my fingers to the keyboard and produce some thoughts of my very own.