Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Spirituality of Missional Messiness


By Rev. Ron Robinson
Preached in Bartlesville, OK, Sunday, July 27, 2014

This past month at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Providence, Rhode Island, I led a workshop called Ministry in Abandoned Places: The 3Rs of Love Reaching Out. There I shared much about our local all volunteer group in community and service with neighbors on the north edge of Tulsa, and how it reflects the missional church movement today. It was a lot like what I brought here when I preached last October. I updated it  with our current "S.O.S.", our Summer of Service Miracle Among the Ruins projects we have going on now through the UUA www.Faithify.org site to raise funds by Aug. 8 for our community center initiatives in the abandoned church building and for a kitchen greenhouse in the gardenpark and orchard where abandoned houses once stood. Both so we can serve more and throughout the year in our part where people are dying 14 years earlier than in other parts of town.

All very inspiring I hoped, and hope. I try to get across the possibilities of turning church inside out in a new culture where fewer and fewer seek church in the same ways as before. Church as something we create, not something we go to or attend.

Before the workshop, though, I said that what was really needed were two workshop slots, one for sharing the information and the inspiration, but then one more for getting real, for sharing the struggles, the frustrations, the setbacks, the constant learnings, the personal failings, and how to sustain mission and grow the soul in and through it all. How important it is to develop a spirituality of messiness for our messy world and lives, especially in a place where people often have felt shame for the mess of their lives and where there is so much physical and spiritual deterioration of the neighborhoods.

I began to hint at this when I was here last time. Looking over my sermon from then, I found these words near the end when I talked about how almost every month we go broke and wonder if we might have to close or curtail a lot like so much else that has been closed or moved from around us. I said:

“We face that abyss with each break-in, each vandalism, each broken heart or hurt feeling, as people and finances come and go, and we have to grow deeper in radical trust and the faith to keep making leaps into the abyss.
That is why we need to keep stoking the fires burning within our own lives without becoming burned out, so we can be a spark for others. It is why mission to others is always mirrored with refreshing the spirit—why I hope you are here this morning. It is why we say we aren’t really giving out food or information as much as giving relationship, community, connecting the disconnected, starting with what’s disconnected within us. Partnering with people of peace, and promoting a sense of abundance instead of anxiety, is more important than all the programs I have mentioned or that we might begin.”

So think of this sermon as Part Two of that, or as I joke about it as “The Anti Workshop Sermon” because it is not so much about presenting something new and inspirational as it is about finding inspiration and connection and hope again in the wake of things that don’t turn out the way you hope, when you lose connection, and you run dry of inspiration. 

In Providence, at General Assembly I think the part two of my workshop came in the form of the esteemed annual Ware Lecture given this year by Sister Simone Campbell of Nuns on the Bus fame but who has been working in and with the poor for many years, along with those in the progressive group Leadership Conference of Women Religious who have pushing for action on behalf of the poorest among us. Her talk was about the calling to “Walk Toward Trouble.” To not turn away from suffering, to acknowledge it and all its difficulties, complexities, and conflicts. She embodies what Jesus really meant when he is reported to have said “the poor you will always have with you,” meaning NOT that you can then ignore the poor and their worlds, BUT that if you are a follower of his you will always be among the poor, the hurting, those treated unjustly. That that, and not some serene perfect feeling of detached oneness, is what it means to live religiously. Engaging in Reality, she reminded us, is more important than engaging in capital T Truth, and that it calls forth our humility as a religious action more than our certainty in a religious principle.

It was a word I needed to hear because often when we open up our doors, when we open up ourselves, we are walking toward trouble, walking with those who are troubled, walking with those who cause trouble, who are trying to get away from trouble, and the secret is that all of those make up the We I am talking about. I tell those who work with us that we are going to disappoint one another, break each other’s heart, frustrate one another, wear each other down, abandon one another, the same as we might experience all of that from someone who comes in the Center’s door or through the park’s gate. 

How we learn to grow from all that will actually help us grow through the thefts, the gossip, the vandalism, the rumors, the fires, the repairs, the addiction to drama, all those things that are really a relatively small part of life together where we are but that because of the messiness of life in general make any sane person want to throw up their hands and say where’s the nearest deserted island to flee toward, or I get enough of that from my own family and friends why do I need to immerse in it with strangers? Especially if what I am seeking, as so many people say, is community.

Beloved Community is a term for what we often say we wish to offer the world. But I think that is too often a limited concept in our minds. Community of the Beloved conjures up and is often lived out as a community of like minded, like values, of the liked, and that tends to keep us focused inward on those who come to become us, especially if our own family and work connections are anything but like us, the drive for a community like us then becomes even stronger. And it makes us want to stifle any healthy differences that might seem to endanger that community, and as life’s ironies would have it that of course leads to the kind of inwardness that eventually has people either leaving out of boredom or eating each other up.

If, on the other hand, we sought to become not community but what is called communitas, the gathering that is oriented outwards, that gathers to help itself scatter out into the world to, as we say, love the hell out of this world, whose Beloved are those we do not yet know, who we might not in our normal lives come into contact with, who in fact we might want to cross the street to avoid, then we would have the messiness of the world and our lives in it always before us as visible reasons for why we gather in the first place.

How to find a spiritual center while on this kind of missional messiness?  It isn’t easy. People often ask me how I do what I do. I tell them I do it poorly and that’s all right.  That’s true, But it is more than that. I could also do things a lot  better in my life, like most of us I believe, and I keep working on that, most of the time, but it is still more than that awareness. I have learned that for me the spiritual center, that place of deepest connection to wonder and gratitude and oneness with the universe and eternity, is found in the very places where topsy-turvy life meets us, challenges us, surprises us, and takes us deeper.

It is why I have been so sustained at the toughest and most tired times by the unconventional wisdom of Jesus’ parables, especially two of them which are being read today in churches around the world, including by some of ours that follow what is called the Revised Common Lectionary, something that the national organization I serve, the UU Christian Fellowship, helped to start as a way to bring churches closer together. The study of these two parables, one called The Leaven and the other The Mustard Seed, put me on the path to seminary and ministry in the first place after I attended a workshop put on by Hope Unitarian Church in Tulsa with the parables scholar who was soon to be my seminary teacher and advisor, Brandon Scott whose popular book ReImagine the World is about how the parables not only helped the followers of Jesus to reimagine and live differently in their world of oppression and poverty but how they later helped people to reimagine their relationship with Jesus as well, not so much as having faith IN Jesus as having faith ALONG WITH Jesus, having a faithfulness, a trust, in what Jesus trusted. That radical shift that was there all along, but was buried in dogma by many for centuries, is emerging now to help shift the foundations and the focus of church.

When I was growing up in church, I rarely heard much about the parables of Jesus. And when I did they were all about conventional wisdom and morality tales of being good, or they were seen as allegories about the Church, but in a way that reflected more the values of the American Dream and society than about the challenge to those very values. You got their lessons in Sunday School and then were supposed to not need them after that. But today the parables are seen as the key to Jesus’ message, ministry, mission. These parables about a revolutionary vision of God and about a counter cultural mindset, called back then the Kingdom of God which was itself a parable since everyone knew Kingdom was Caeser’s Roman’s, they have themselves gone through a revolution. So much so that for many who write on them today, you can’t deeply understand even the stories of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus without seeing them as parables themselves, parables about Jesus told in the spirit of the parables he himself told.

The parables show us that before Jesus was considered the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, he first anointed, or Christ-ed the world itself, in all its messiness, especially those parts of it and those people who were treated as disposable objects.

One of my favorite parables is when Jesus said: God’s Spirit, God’s Empire, is like leaven, which a woman stole, and put into three measures of flour, until it was all corrupted. That’s it. That seemingly simple parable is, as Professor Scott says, about God changing sides. God’s Relocation. First instead of evoking God as holiness, purity, as in the tradition of unleavened bread, Jesus brings together the Sacred with leaven, yeast, something ordinary, unholy even, something moldy that was to be kept separate and apart while preparing your meal. Next in the parable God is likened to a woman, and as if that isn’t bad enough in the eyes of the world, she is a woman who sneaks or steals this leaven and mixes it in the flour, and then in another seemingly foolish act she puts it into enough flour to feed a feast, and what naturally happens then? It all goes bad, becomes useless, wasteful. And that’s where the parable ends.

The God, or spirituality, of this parable has relocated…from separateness to being mixed up, from holiness to unholiness, from power and privilege and public status to something that happens in the home, out of sight is no longer out of mind, at least in God’s mind and sight; also the notion of Spirituality is relocated from fullness and contentment to emptiness and waste; also from The Spirit as A Static Being or Stoic beingness to a process, a messy movement, one that changes and corrupts from within the dominant culture’s status quo and beliefs in what is to be considered worthy and respectable and the good life.
In the ancient world there was a divinely ordered sense of life, and it is strange that so much has changed since then and yet strong traces remain, perhaps in some places more than others. The world was seen as fixed and with set roles to maintain as life’s purpose, and its ultimate values prized wealth and property, power over others, health, knowledge, strength, beauty, achievements. The statues and art of the time reflected this as well as the organization of relationships and community. This was the default mode of the world, but Jesus’ parables re-imagined the world, called people to a different default mode.

Again, he said, God is like the mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden and it grew and became a great shrub and put forth large branches so the birds of heaven could nest in its shelter.

Jesus’ hearers would have heard that and been shocked. Mustard was illegal to use in gardens because it is an invasive plant, taking over, spilling out of garden beds, ruining all the perfection and symmetry. If you were going to use a horticultural image, God, in the Empire’s understanding, was supposed to be likened to the Great Cedar Trees of Lebanon, tall and strong and everlasting in their fixed spots with deep roots, not wild and noxious.
The image of God became the image of the poor and powerless, the outcast, the disruptive innovative force. And Jesus didn’t just teach this with striking words, but he lived as if the world of the parables was the real world. In a time of great scarcity he risked all in the spirit of abundance and generosity, showing the possibilities of the real power that came from such a re-imagined God. 

But who would want to follow that kind of God, they asked? And still do. It makes no sense. It won’t work in the world. But the parables turn God upside down and inside out and call us to do the same with our lives and our communities, to reimagine the world as if Caeser were not still in charge. Caeser as unbridled affluence, appearance, achievement, security, even the sense of coolness, consumption, fear, scarcity even in the midst of endless options and varieties of goods that replace the Common Good.

Spirituality that is found in what the parables point us toward is a kind of counter dominant culture spirituality. 

The new Empire of Experiences, of EntertainmentMarketplace, says find our Spirit or the good life in owning the latest gadgets, in making our personal life easier, in separating ourself from others especially those most unlike us, in a gospel of prosperity or perfection, in spending money to travel to faroff places or people to find enlightenment and fulfillment, or in just turning off and tuning out of the world across town or outside our doors? The parables spirituality says all of that is an illusion, a treadmill that never changes you or the world. Not like walking toward trouble, like groping in the wilderness for the hands of others, anyone’s messy hands, and seeking a life together.

Because we are here in a Unitarian Universalist church, and can do such things (though we aren’t alone in this of course) I will end with a final parable of Jesus that sums up all this for me, as if a parable can ever sum all up, when what it really does is keep breaking things open, apart. 

This parable isn’t found in the common lectionary because it comes from The Gospel of Thomas, one of the important texts for part of the early church that is still not officially by many considered as sacred text on the same level as the ones we have gathered together in the Bibles now. It is the parable of the Woman with A Jar.

Jesus said: “God is like a certain woman, who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking on the road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke and the meal emptied out behind her on the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty.”

I am tempted, as Jesus would have, to end on that stark abrupt note and leave us hanging with that image. 
But talk about messiness and the realities of life. I have said this parable in contemporary terms is like being broke, skipping meals, getting by just waiting for payday or for the monthly check, then once getting it you rush to the bank or cash checking place to deposit it in order to be able to buy food for the family for that night, and on the way the check blows out of the car, the card is lost or stolen, and there you stand at the teller’s window realizing it. 

The jar full of meal the woman had likely would have fed a family for a month. And That awful moment, Jesus seems to be saying, can become an awe-full moment. That moment of being drained and feeling alone and empty has the possibility of reminding us Whose we are, that we are not the controllers of all things in our life, that we are part of others, in need of others as they are in need of us. It is a moment when all the messiness of life and our life comes out into the open, and we are left at a threshold, and God or life is like that, full of opportunity and full of risk, continually opening up our lives to depth and new beginnings, even though they be hard ones. 

Like in the more familiar parable of the prodigal sons, this woman, like the elder brother in that one, is left at the end of the parable in a place of uncertainty, in his case he can either remain out in the field in his sense of being right and just and miss out on the party inside calling to all, in her case she can remain within her own narrow world where she doesn’t notice the world around her and within her, remain in remorse and shame and isolation. Or, in both cases, they can take a leap into an abyss that is called living in and for the unknown future, living with and for others beyond themselves even with a messiness of feelings and failures that go along with it, and in doing so open themselves up to a Spirit that can lift them from the depths of despair to the heights of hope.


As can we

Saturday, June 21, 2014

What The World (and the Church) Needs Now...



Sermon, UU Church of Stillwater, OK Sunday June 22, 2014
“What The World (and the Church) Needs Now”
Rev. Ron Robinson

Readings: from Isaiah 58, and from Michael Durrall’s chapter Church as Activists not Spectators in Church Do’s and Don’ts, and a little from Apostle Paul in First Corinthians 13.

This week I am going to be presenting a workshop at the UUA General Assembly in Providence, Rhode Island entitled “Ministry in Abandoned Places: The 3Rs of Reaching Out.” It will be about the lessons of our ministry at The Welcome Table in far north Tulsa as one example out of many of what is called these days the missional church. The missional church is different from simply a church with a mission or what is called sometimes a purpose-driven church; a church with a mission or purpose can be a church that decides taking care of its own current members is what is most important to it and to the world and is its mission or purpose. But The mission-al church is the opposite of that. A missional church doesn’t spend time trying to figure out or debate about a mission statement, either, or change it every few years, because Mission, being sent to serve others, is what brings it about, is what gives it the air for it to breathe and live and move and have its being in the first place. The missional church may change often, but not its language and core sense about itself; instead it will change its very external forms in order to better respond due to the changes around it, to keep living into its calling to be sent and to serve.

The theme of the General Assembly itself is Love Reaches Out. It is a good theme for the various re-orienting approaches to our purpose as congregations toward missional goals. That theme is capturing the movement within our wider movement toward what is called a focus on “Congregations AND Beyond”; both are needed, existing congregations and new forms beyond congregations, but we have historically, like most church bodies in the modern era, spent most of our resources and life focused on congregations only. In the past they were the primary place where spiritual community happened. Now that that is all changing, and they don’t have a privileged place in either the landscape of religion and certainly not anymore in the landscape of culture at large, we need to create some balance with more attention paid to the Beyond part, to the many new ways our faith and values are being incarnated in relationships in the world that don’t look or feel like congregations and organizations have up to now. We need to connect with, need to “go to” people who have little use or ability to access traditional models of “come to us” congregations and organizations--no matter how inviting and well run they are—people who are still hungry for connection for service to others in a meaningful ways and worship that refreshes the spirit for that service, and chances to reflect and learn from that service.
Congregations, even ones who haven’t changed much fundamentally in 60 years, will continue to have a strong potential for transforming lives and the world, but if we don’t also look and live beyond ourselves and our own organizational needs, sometimes in radical new ways, sometimes carried out even by existing congregations, then in the expanding spiritual universe that requires a “bigger bandwidth” of what church means, we will find ourselves with shrinking impact in the world.
            Churches are answers, or responses, to questions, to conditions that call them into being in the first place. We say that church does not have a mission; but Mission has a church. There is a felt need that church seeks to meet. Church is the response then to What The World Needs Now, and what the world needs now might not primarily be what the world needed when a particular congregation was begun. Especially in a time of rapid cultural change.

In the past 25 years, I have planted, started or re-started three churches, and helped others to start. Over that time, the questions asked in determining what church should be and do and where it should do it and who should be in it have changed. They are not anymore how many people like you can you gather together; how many have a college education, how many in an area believe like you do, or even have similar values that you do, much less, as sometimes guides our choices, who likes the same music or who listens to the same radio stations, all those old marketing questions that used to guide us in attracting people to start churches. It is particularly not how many people can we get to become members so we can more easily meet our budget to keep taking care of ourselves.
Now the questions are: Who in your community does your heart break for? Where are those most vulnerable and what are their felt needs? Why should you exist in the first place and for whom? To what forms are you willing to die in order that you might live more fully in a new land? If you ceased to exist, how many in the community beyond you would notice or be affected or care?
One of the many new radical expressions and experiences of church that I will be talking about in my workshop at General Assembly is that I no longer believe our goal as church is to create more Unitarian Universalists, or for me as a Christian I even say it is not to create more Christians. Becoming x, y, or z is not the end in itself we strive for, is not the Why for our existence, but is at best a means to a greater end. It is those greater ends we need to keep our eyes on, and our resources pointed toward; the greater end of helping to create lives and communities of generosity and boldness and compassion, and so they can then help create lives of abundance and commitment to the most vulnerable and endangered in our society who should be our ultimate concern.
Creating religious institutions is certainly one way toward that end, but only if they do not see themselves (and their beliefs) as the end in themselves; in fact, they may, in various ways through what they do and not do and what they might keep people from doing, work against making the world a better place, especially better for those beyond them (and maybe within them too) who are suffering the most. This is what happens when a church focuses on becoming the “best” church in a community instead of the best church for the community. It is what happens when a church seeks to thrive while a community around it declines.  
Just becoming a church member, I believe, or even believing a certain way, does not make the world a better place for those who struggle the most. It is as scripture said, “by their fruits you will know them.” Are the best fruits those of “right ideas” about the Ultimate, or is it those who form “right relationships” with the most vulnerable, shamed, and outcast? Which fruit is deemed the “most religious”? This is especially true in areas where there is a lack of resources and of groups living in and with and for the poor and marginalized, where it is not a case of “other groups” being available doing this mission. Especially with the cutting back of public support and a sense of a commonwealth, there are fewer and fewer others stepping into the increasing gaps of society.
 In our area, for example, the landscape is dotted with churches only opened on Sundays while buildings continue to be abandoned around them, or buses that come in from the big churches in other area who pick people up and bring them back and ignore the neighborhoods they live in, all to focus on creating a pseudo-community feel-good experience weekly; like a spiritual hit. Like creating another realm of consumerism.

It is important to put all this church and culture change into a wider context. If nothing else it should help alleviate anxiety, blame, shame, and conspiracy theories. This shift in the ultimate focus for church is an aspect of living in the wake of the cultural move in the West from the churched to dechurched/unchurched culture. Of going toward a post-modern, post-Christian, post-denominational, now post-congregational world. By post I mean not that those elements and institutions aren’t important and a current factor, but that they do not hold the central privileged places in society the once did.
In the churched culture (that began to really lose its privileged place throughout the USA by 1963) the point of church life was, mistakenly I believe but still the dominant point, to continue the existence and power of the institution of the church in a world populated by the institutions of other churches, faiths. Church was a given so your mission was to differentiate yourself from other churches. The church was primary, was the center, and the mission field was secondary, was a resource for the church. (Was often seen as far away in other lands. This is another way the new missional-church is the opposite of the old mission-ary church; in that old culture, the church went to the world in order to convert it to being more like the church; in the new mission-al culture, the church goes to the world in order to serve it, be converted by its deep needs, changed by it first so it can then truly change the world.)
In the churched world, People tended to become or return to becoming the church-goers of their families and neighborhoods; brand loyalty was high and clearly defined culturally and there was little stress of competitiveness between the churches, and littler still between the churches and the culture and its various opportunities outside the church. In this world making more Unitarian Universalists, or Methodists, or whatever, was the way the church realized its beingness in the churched-focused culture. 

Especially so I might add if you were in a church that also grew more and more percentage of its own coming in from other churches, then making more UUs became increasingly important, it would be seen, for its survival. In the dialectic of the age, the more the external community became less focused and dependent upon the institutional church, the more the churches became focused on themselves as institutional beings. “The mission” used to be to perpetuate churches in a world where the “missional field” flowed toward the church; in a world where the church as institution has been marginalized, the missional field has shifted and it has become primary, and so too then should “the mission.” In response the church today either flows toward the missional field, or it dies, gradually or quickly depending on circumstances. (There are admittedly many ways the church can flow, can empty itself, toward the missional field; our manifestation at The Welcome Table which is always changing itself is just one; there are exciting varied ways of being the church happening all over the UU world. You can check out some of them and support them on the new Faithify.org website that goes live this Wednesday at 4 pm. By the way, we have two projects seeking support in the all or nothing crowdsourcing site: one for a Kitchen Greenhouse at our gardenpark and orchard where the abandoned houses used to be, so we can grow more and grow year round and teach cooking and preserving and grow more healthy lives in our area where we die 14 years sooner than others in Tulsa, and the other is for our Community Room so we can use it all year, for seniors, for youth, for service learning projects with universities, and for hospitality for those who come from around the country to work with us and learn with us.
When you see the variety of new expressions underway among us, and there are more even than are reflected in this inaugural funding web project, you will see that what is happening is a kind of New Fellowship Movement focused not on creating small organizations of “us”, but on new ways of relating with “them”, those who may never join an organization or call themselves UU or this or that but who will walk with one another in the spirit of love in order to share that love with those experiencing it the least.
Now, Is making more Unitarian Universalists (Christian, etc.) a bad thing then, or an unnecessary thing? Only I think if we make more Unitarian Universalists who think that the purpose of their faith is themselves and what they believe, and that it is more important to have and promote the right religious beliefs instead of the right religious relationships, and those are ones made with those different from us, and those others abandon and treat unjustly, unmercifully.
And yet, aren’t ideas, beliefs, important and have consequences? Yes. For example, I say that what I try to do as a leader of a missional community among the vulnerable has all to do with how I understand and experience my particular faith of freely following Jesus, and comes from a theological commitment to a God of liberation and radical solidarity with the poor and oppressed. But in reality what has been manifested at The Welcome Table has been enriched and deepened not so much by thinking about these things, the missional life, and holding the right ideas about it, but from living in it and growing in response to the needs of ourselves and our neighbors. It has come more from failing at our very own visions and endeavors and ideas, but then being able to respond to the new openings and relationships that happen as a result. I say often that when we have failed to be what we wanted to be or thought we needed to be that we then grew to become what the world needed us to be.
It has been freeing to make not being right about theological matters the main reason for being, but instead making the creation of more compassion and justice in the world the reason for being, and to imagine churches who embody it. Yes, all the old theological commitments and positions that have shaped our UU history are important to engage with (when I was in seminary I took a third of my courses in theology; it was a kind of graduate subspecialty of mine; and I had been studying Process theology for almost twenty years before going to seminary, and I love church history and teach UU history and polity at the seminary), but these positions which had delineated us in the old decades were always just a part of a deeper holistic religious tradition; they weren’t the be all and end all of our faith; that also has always included spiritual practices, community life, and service to and with others, and those three things can still  move us toward being with others deeply, spiritually, despite theological stances; all because the hurts of the world demand it.
Now I say I am more concerned with and am more urgent about keeping alive those in my zipcode who are dying at faster rates that the wealthier in our area are, more concerned about them than I am keeping alive theological differences or keeping worship services filled, or churches afloat financially. Nor do I want to grow the numbers of Unitarian Universalists so that the democratic process in religion will flourish. Or, for that matter, so the Seven Principles will be adopted by more people. They can be and are being championed by any number of faith communities and more secular groups, and that is all good. Our calling is still higher than these, and even the seven principles are also means themselves to put to use toward the ultimate ends of making life just a little bit easier, safer, more hopeful, more sacred for those without those things.
Again, I believe we are experiencing a shift from the old churched culture of people seeking and coming into, or staying in, a church because of what they have come to believe and think already and are entering the new unchurched culture where people are seeking and coming into or staying in a church because it is open and nurturing to what their beliefs might still yet become as they grow and deepen as persons through the primary religious act of healing engagement in the world beyond themselves.
Unitarian Universalism is not the end, it is the means; I say the same thing for myself about Christianity. And that makes a world of difference in how to impact the world now. Yes, We matter. But Not because there is a difference and uniqueness we must preserve in order to be ourselves (that goes for my brother and sister Christians as well as my brother and sister UUs). And Not so people of like minds have a place to call home and celebrate their like minds (or like values). We matter to the extent that we offer, or can offer what we have always offered throughout our history, a way of radical loving covenantal freedom for people to connect with and grow with others, others of all kinds of ideas and situations, into a more abundant generous hope-filled justice-seeking humbled people,
A people Whose mission is to create beyond itself more of what the world needs now: love, sweet love. It’s the only thing there’s just too little of.
 The Apostle Paul was right; faith hope and love these three; yes, faith is important; yes, hope is important, but the greatest of these, more important than what you believe to be true, or how you happen to be feeling, is love. Love made real in our commitments to others--not just for some, but for everyone. Lord we don’t need another church feeling good or bad about itself and the future; there are enough of those; what the world needs now is love, bold love, for the least the last the losers of the American Dream. What the world needs now, more than more church members, is church with the faith, the hope, the love, to take leaps, leaps into the lives of those who are struggling for any faith, some hope, and love. And the wonderful surprise, as the prophet Isaiah knew, is that when that is the primary quest or main mission before us, then we ourselves and our churches, our connections, our communities by whatever shape, we will grow as well in mutual faith, hope, and love in order to be able to share what we have in abundance.

What the world needs becomes what the church needs; we just have to put the world’s needs first. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

What The World Needs Now





Sermon, UU Congregation, Tahlequah, OK Sunday June 1, 2014
“What The World Needs Now”
By Rev. Ron Robinson

Readings: from Isaiah 58, and from Michael Durrall’s chapter Church as Activists not Spectators in Church Do’s and Don’ts.

Later this month I am going to be presenting a workshop at the UUA General Assembly in Providence, Rhode Island entitled “Ministry in Abandoned Places: The 3Rs of Reaching Out.” It will be about our ministry at The Welcome Table in far north Tulsa and about the way of the missional church. The theme of the General Assembly itself is Love Reaches Out. It is a good theme for re-orienting our mission as congregations. That theme is capturing the movement within our wider movement toward what is called a focus on “Congregations and Beyond”; the beyond part is the many new ways our faith and values are being incarnated in relationships that don’t look or feel like congregations and organizations have up to now, but are ways of connecting with people who have little use for traditional models of congregations and organizations no matter how inviting and well run they are, and connecting with those who don’t have the resources to get to and be a part of “come to us” churches, but who are hungry for connection and service and celebration. Congregations will continue to have a strong mission for transforming the world, but if we don’t also look and live beyond ourselves and our own organizational needs then we will find ourselves with little relevance in the world.
 Preparing for the workshop has me thinking about the really three different church plants over three decades I have been involved with and how each was a different response to what I thought the world needed: first, during the 90s here in Tahlequah, second during the 2000s in the suburban world of Owasso, OK and in that church’s transplant into the far northside Tulsa neighborhood of Turley, and third now this decade as we are morphing into more of an organic set of missional relationships and networks and adopting some of the ways of the New Monastic movement, being shaped by what has been described as the 3Rs of radical community development: Relocation to abandoned places of poverty, Reconciliation of peoples across ethnic and other lines that are driving us into re-segregated lives, and Redistribution of goods and the Common Good to those most vulnerable among us without resources.

Those 3Rs are now guiding the reason for creating space for church to happen in the first place, moreso than growing the number of people who identify as members of a particular church. They are bringing back the old prophetic voices of religious traditions that stake out what “the good life” should really be all about.

As different as each of these church plants have been, as I look back, I see how the seeds of much that we do now at The Welcome Table on the northside of Tulsa is connected with lessons first learned in the first church plant here in Tahlequah. So let me start by pointing some of those out.

First, in the Unitarian Universalist world of the time in the 1980s when my family moved back to Tahlequah, this was considered a pretty abandoned place for starting a free church. We got a lot of “You’re trying to start a UU church where?” kind of responses and blank looks. The UUA growth estimate statistics for the time projected that we should be able to have a church of 11 people based, as they did back then in a very classism way, on the percentage of people in an area with a college degree.

 Even moving back here before we thought of starting a church got us some of the same looks and responses. We had just finished our graduate programs in Kansas. As a doctor and a writer we could have moved pretty much anywhere to live. We chose Tahlequah because we loved the land, had had a good time here as undergraduates, and primarily because we felt we were going into a place with a lot of folks in need and in poverty whom we could work with to make a difference in the world. Still, one person told us “Tahlequah is the kind of place you move from, once you get your education, not move to.” It wasn’t considered a cool enough, happening kind of place for a young couple.
Probably isn’t still in many people’s eyes. But these past ten years when we have talked to people about our relocating and downsizing to live in our zipcode with the lowest life expectancy in Tulsa, and doing church in a radically different kind of way there, and we get the blank stares,  we know, from our Tahlequah experience, that we are really at home, and in the right place.

And Tahlequah prepared us for rapid change that can come when you take risks and have faith in leaps. Not only did we quadruple that expected total number of 11 people in just a few months, but within a few years this church had seen a presence from two of the UUA Presidents and was being preached about all over the country. One of the reasons for that is the vision we had that we wanted to be a part of a different kind of story for church back then. Back then most UU groups that were being started by lay leaders were expected to follow what was called the stereotypical Fellowship model, one that would stay small and focus on discussion of ideas more than communal worship, and mainly be for the mutual support of its own members rather than be a force for change in the community of which it was a part.
I say stereotypical because that wasn’t really historically accurate for our Fellowship movement of the 50s and 60s. But when we started here we wanted to be a part of a new story, what was then becoming known as the new congregations extension movement with a DNA of spirituality and service and a community voice. So now, where we are, when we have become leaders, in an unexpected place, of a new story of church as missional community, even as church as a network of relationships both face to face and online, of incarnating faith in new ways in our new post modern, post denominational, post congregational world, again it feels like we are drawing upon our Tahlequah experience of breaking molds.

What the world needs, though, is what guided us then, and what still guides us now. The questions though which we now ask in determining what church should be and do and where it should do it have changed. They are not how many people have a college education, or how many people in an area believe like we do, or even have similar values that we do, much less who likes the same music or who listens to the same radio stations, all those old marketing questions that used to guide us in starting churches. It is particularly not how many people can we get to become members so we can easier meet our budget to keep taking care of ourselves. Now the questions are: Who in your community does your heart break for? Why should you exist in the first place and for whom? To what are you willing to die in order that you might live anew? If you ceased to exist, how many in the community beyond you would notice or be affected or care?

One of the many new radical expressions and experiences of church that I will be talking about in my workshop at General Assembly is that I often now believe our goal is not to create more Unitarian Universalists, or for me as a Christian also it is not to create more Christians. Becoming Unitarian Universalist (or if I was in another church community I would say the same about them) is not the end in itself we strive for, is not the Why for our existence, but is at best a means to a greater end. It is those greater ends we need to keep our eyes on, and our resources pointed toward, and that is the end of creating neighborhoods and communities that themselves help create lives of abundance and commitment to the most vulnerable and endangered in our society. Creating religious institutions is certainly one way toward that end, but only if they do not see themselves (and their beliefs) as the end in themselves; in fact, they may, in various ways through what they do and not do and keep people from doing, work against making the world a better place, especially for those beyond them (and maybe within them too) who are suffering the most. This is what happens when a church focuses on becoming the “best” church in a community instead of the best church for the community. It is what happens when a church seeks to thrive while a community around it declines.  

Just becoming a church member, I believe, or even believing a certain way, does not make the world a better place. It is as scripture said, “by their fruits you will know them”? Are the best fruits those of “right ideas” about the Ultimate, or “right relationships” with the most vulnerable, shamed, and outcast? Which fruit is deemed the “most religious”? This is especially true in areas where there is a lack of any groups living in and with and for the poor and marginalized and it is not a case of “other groups” available doing this mission. In our area, for example, the landscape is dotted with churches only opened on Sundays while buildings continue to be abandoned around them, or buses that come in from the big churches in other area who pick people up and bring them back and ignore the neighborhoods they live in, all to focus on creating a pseudo-community feel-good experience weekly; like a spiritual hit. These kind of abandoned areas seem to be growing in number throughout the US. It is an ages-old situation and question and challnge, and one the Hebrew prophets particularly, and the Christian early monks who moved away from Empire’s influence, all kept alive in their times and point us toward the right way now.

It is important to put this all in a wider context. If nothing else it should help alleviate anxiety, blame, shame, and conspiracy theories. This shift in ultimate focus is an aspect of living in the wake of the cultural move in the West from the churched to dechurched/unchurched culture. In the churched culture (that began to really lose its privileged place throughout the USA by 1963) the point of church life was, mistakenly, to continue the existence and power of the institution of the church in a world populated by the institutions of other churches, faiths. The church was primary, was the center, and the mission field was secondary, was a resource for the church. People tended to become or return to becoming the church-goers of their families and neighborhoods; brand loyalty was high and clearly defined culturally and there was little competitiveness between the churches, and littler still between the churches and the culture and its various opportunities outside the church. In this world making more Unitarian Universalists, or Methodists, or whatever, was the way the church realized its beingness in the churched-focused culture. 

Especially if you were in a church that also grew more and more percentage of its own coming in from other churches, then making more UUs became increasingly important, it would be seen, for its survival. In the dialectic of the age, the more the external community became less focused on the institutional church, the more the churches became focused on themselves as institutional beings. “The mission” used to be to perpetuate themselves in a world where the “missional field” flowed toward the church; in a world where the church as institution has been marginalized, the missional field has shifted and become primary, and so too then should “the mission.” In response the church today either flows toward the missional field, or it dies, gradually or quickly depending on circumstances. (There are admittedly many ways the church can flow, can empty itself, toward the missional field; our manifestation at The Welcome Table which is always changing itself is just one; there are exciting varied ways of being the church happening all over the UU world).

Is making more Unitarian Universalists (Christian, etc.) a bad thing then, or an unnecessary thing? Only I think if we make more Unitarian Universalists who think that the purpose of their faith is themselves and what they believe, and that it is more important to have and promote the right religious beliefs instead of the right religious relationships. And yet, aren’t ideas, beliefs, important and have consequences? Yes. For example, I say that what I try to do as a leader of a missional community among the vulnerable has all to do with how I understand and experience freely following Jesus, and comes from a theological commitment to a God of liberation and radical solidarity. But in reality what has been manifested at The Welcome Table has been enriched and deepened not so much by thinking about missional life and holding the right ideas about it but from living in it and growing in response to the needs of my neighbors. It has come more from failing at visions and endeavors and being able to respond to the openings and relationships that happen as a result.

It was here in this sanctuary that I met the ecologist and philosopher and economist and pretty good biblical interpreter Wes Jackson of The Land Institute and was moved by his call to move from knowledge-based decisions to not-knowing decisions, to mystery and wonder and the wisdom of community, and this has spilled over in the missional community into theological ways too. It has been freeing to make the Divine not about being right about things, not having all knowledge about things and how to do things the right way, as the main reason for being, and okay not having a simple bumper sticker or elevator speech message about who we are and what we stand for, as long as we are committed--as the title of one of Jackson's book has it--to becoming native to our place, and through it creating more compassion and justice in the world.  Yes, all the old theological commitments and positions are important to engage with (when I was in seminary I took a third of my courses in theology; it was a kind of graduate subspecialty of mine; and I had been studying Process theology for almost twenty years before going to seminary), but these positions which had delineated us in the old decades were always just a part of a deeper holistic religious tradition that included spiritual practice, communal life, and service to and with others, and these can move us toward being with others despite theological stances; all because the hurts of the world demand it.

It is true, though, that I am now more concerned with and am more urgent about keeping alive those in my zipcode than I am keeping alive theological differences or keeping worship services filled. My zipcode where there is a 14 year life expectancy gap with the zipcode just six miles away in a wealthier area (and by extension all those imperiled by even greater inequality and injustice today regardless where they are). That missional focus, that our reason for being is in being sent (hence the Greek word missio) into the places and peoples around us who have been left out and left behind, and in doing so we come into our own more fully and grow in imitation of the beloved community the more we attempt to initiate it in the world, is something too that’s even greater than preserving and promoting the “how” we do church, our polity, what we used to say was our ultimate commonality no matter the liturgical form or covenantal language a church takes as its own.

I don’t want to grow the numbers of Unitarian Universalists so that the democratic process in religious will flourish. Nor, for that matter, so any of the Seven Principles either will be adopted by more people. They can be and are being championed by any number of faith communities and more secular groups. Our calling is still higher than these, and the seven principles are also means themselves to put to use toward the ends of missional transformations in the world.

Again, I believe we are experiencing a shift from the old churched culture of people seeking and coming into, or staying in, a church because of what they have come to believe and think already and are entering the new unchurched culture where people are seeking and coming into or staying in a church because it is open and nurturing to what their beliefs might still yet become as they grow and deepen as persons through the primary religious act of healing engagement in the world beyond themselves.

Unitarian Universalism is not the end, it is the means; I say the same thing for myself about Christianity. And that makes a world of difference in how to impact the world now. We matter. But Not because there is a difference and uniqueness we must preserve in order to be ourselves. And Not so people of like minds have a place to call home and celebrate their like minds (or like values). We matter because we offer, or can offer what we have always offered in our historical inspiration, a way of radical loving covenantal freedom for people to connect with and grow with others, of all kinds of ideas and faiths,  into a more abundant generous hope-filled justice-seeking humbled people, Whose mission is to create beyond itself more of what the world needs: love, sweet love. It’s the 

only thing there’s just too little of. 

The Apostle Paul was right; faith hope and love these three; yes, faith is important; yes, hope is important, but the greatest of these, more important than what you believe to be true, or how you are feeling, is love. 

Love made real in our commitments to others, not just for some, but for everyone. Lord we don’t need another church feeling good or bad about itself and the future; there are enough of those; what the world needs now is love, bold love, for the least the last the losers of the American Dream. 

That, not church members, is what there’s just too little of. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday 2014: The Three Americas, and What Has Been Going On, and What's Coming Up Here


Palm Sunday: Occupying The Abandoned Temples of the American Dream Empire

First, before getting to the Palm Sunday message, it has been an exciting past month or so here in the 74126 area; we have become a center for service learning and missional trips lately. We are gradually becoming a center where people can “come and see” the effects of racism on many ethnic groups, economic injustice and classism, and the evil and suffering that happens when the marketplace is not tempered with the moral imperative, when government and other groups focus on numbers and not on need, on individuals and not on neighborhoods.

Already this year we have hosted groups working with us on Tulsa’s northside from Fayetteville, AR and Oklahoma City and Dallas area and from around the country during the Life On Fire event here, and from many places and schools around the Tulsa area who have not been familiar with our part of town. We just finished hosting three classes of graduate social work students from OU who have been working on research projects with us as well as doing direct help for us. We met a lot of people and made connection at the Tulsa Eco-Fest held near our area at the Tulsa Community College Northeast Campus. This past Sunday I made a presentation on our area and our work to the Adult Forum at Hope Unitarian Church in Tulsa. We were scheduled to host a big contingent from Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity during their conference recently but their schedule had to be changed, and we hope to connect in the future.

Coming up, On Wednesday afternoon, April 23, we will have a big group of volunteers from a Tulsa company coming to work at our gardenpark and orchard on N. Johnstown Ave. And just this weekend at the Global Society for Arts in Health convention held in Houston, a presentation on our area and our work was given and well received and more connections made. On Saturday, August 26, we will host a lunch for the Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association as they “come to see” and learn about missional church manifestations in a progressive theological spirit.

And still so much to be done; figuring out ways to pay and staff and continue to reach out with our neighbors on projects even as we continue to go deep and grow our relationships and presence; funding the big projects we are nurturing (the closed Cherokee School reopening and repurposing; abandoned and neglected properties and low-rent “relocation” housing possibilities; organizing for justice with the Industrial Areas Foundation) are getting seeds planted but need a boost in effort and partners and money. And we still struggle to stay open month after month, still trying to build up the foundation of supporters who will give at least a nickel or dime a day to help us with the basics of utilities and mortgage which, because we put it all into mission and have not yet started any salaries, means every contribution is going to direct missional work of feeding and clothing people and growing their overall health and community.

We are also trying to get the word out about us better to more people and potential partners this year. If anyone is able to help us produce videos about what we do and why and with whom, please let me know. And we are hoping this year to begin the long delayed work of fixing up our community center and creating social events at the gardenpark and orchard. The more volunteers the more we are able to do. We would love for this year to be the year we get great signs up at the park, and great art at the park and outside the community center, as well as the new outside deck and benches at the community center, the new deck and stage at the gardenpark, and the big 20 foot table at the park.
And, before I print the message below, Here is the list of coming events planned so far for the next few weeks; your chance to connect with us:

Free Breakfast Second, Third, Fourth and any Fifth Saturdays 9 am, weather permitting, Welcome Table Community GardenPark and Orchard, 6005 N. Johnstown Ave. Free Supper, First Saturday 4 pm. Growing your own food is like printing your own money. Get a Free Garden Bed. Just come eat with us and enjoy the gardenpark.
Every Wednesday and Saturday, 10 am to Noon, Free Food and Clothing and More On Community Days, Welcome Table Center, 5920 N. Owasso Ave. serving the 74126, 74130, 74073 zips. Also free books, computer center, art studio.
Community Breakfast Second Saturdays, 7 to 10 am, $5 with Kids 10 and under free, Odd Fellows Lodge, 6227 N. Quincy Ave. 

We just finished our wonderful Community Easter Kids Celebration on Saturday with the local United Methodist Church, 6050 N. Johnstown Ave. including kid gardening at our gardenpark and orchard. It was so good to see the children enjoying an actual hunt for easter eggs and surprises instead of what happens at so many institutional egg hunts which are more like race and grabs as the eggs are just laid out in an open field.

Palm Sunday Worship with communion was held this morning at Turley United Methodist Church, 6050 N. Johnstown Ave. at 10:30 am followed by free lunch afterwards. One of our “rules of life” for our missional community is to eat together as often as possible, at least three times a week.

Wednesday, April 16, 12:30 pm lunch for seniors (55 plus) at our Welcome Table Center followed by trip to Aquarium in Jenks. 
Thursday, April 17, 6:30 pm free dinner and Maundy Thursday communion worship at The Welcome Table Center
Friday, April 18, Good Friday worship at noon with us at All Souls Church, 2952 S. Peoria Ave. and/or Good Friday service 6 pm at Turley United Methodist.
Sat. April 19, 10 am Our Area Public Forum, Rudisill Library, Pine & Hartford Ave.
Easter Sunday, April 20, Sunrise Prayer and Meditation Event, 6:30 to 7 am or so, on top of the hill at The Welcome Table GardenPark and Orchard; come feel the spirit of resurrection and renewal at our miracle among the ruins space,  followed by breakfast at The Welcome Table Center. Worship at 10:30 am at Turley United Methodist Church. Come for any or all. 
Earth Day Tuesday, April 22, Turley Litter Pick-Up and Free Dinner for volunteers who help, 5 pm meet at The Welcome Table Center. 
Turley Community Association, Tuesday April 29, 7 pm O'Brien Park Center, 6147 N. Birmingham Ave.
McLain/Turley Area Planning and Partner Meeting, Thursday, May 1, Noon with Free Lunch, The Welcome Table Center.
Mobile Food Pantry Day, Friday, May 16, volunteers begin at 10 am, food pickup at 11 am, The Welcome Table Center. Get vouchers at Wed. and Sat. community days. We eat lunch together with volunteers once the event is over.  
Community Picnic on the Cherokee School playground, Sunday May 18, 11 am to 1 pm. See below for more.
Every Saturday 6 pm 12 Step Recovery Group, at the Welcome Table Center.
Last Thursday at 6:30 pm, Turley Area Alliance Against Crime, at the Center.
Each Thursday, 7 pm, Turley Fire and Rescue Dept meetings, 6404 N. Peoria.
Our diabetes management class and free healthy lunch just finished up on Saturday its important six week presence at The Welcome Table Center and we have been glad to co-host that with the AreaWideAging Agency.

Palm Sunday Message: The Three Americas, or Occupying The Empire’s Abandoned Places To Remind The World That God Lives Here

This Sunday’s meal message was about how Jesus “occupied” the Empire’s Temple and mocked the false values of Caeser’s Empire when and how he rode into Jerusalem for Passover, with some street theater in the midst of a dangerous time and place to show both people and the powerful that another world was possible, not only possible but could begin right now, right here, with these people. Many of the most vulnerable had been left behind both by the occupying Roman forces and by their own leaders. Jesus was sending a signal to both the haves and the have-nots that the God of the most vulnerable was still with them and was full of hope love and justice.

In that spirit, I talked about how our tradition in our community was to spend Palm Sunday “occupying” one of our abandoned places. In the past we have done it at places we eventually came to own and renew, such as the block of abandoned houses where the park is, and the vandalized church building where our community center is now, and we have done it at the old closed Cherokee School and one of the first was when we put pots of flowers along North Peoria Ave. and at our on-going gardening and beautification project occupying 66th and N. Lewis intersection. We talked about the Palm Sunday that we finished worship by going to an abandoned building and sign out front, where a civic club had been that shut down and several restaurants had been in and shut down; we “occupied” the sign and put up messages of welcome that God is Love and that God Lives in our area, even in such places as ours that others fear to come to, or run down, or just neglect.

And though the weather kept us indoors this Palm Sunday, we decided to throw a picnic for our community and any who want to join us on the playground at Cherokee School, 6001 N. Peoria Ave. Sunday, May 18, 11 am to 1 pm. Bring potluck (no alcoholic beverages) and sports equipment, and for former students bring yearbooks photos; the playgrounds and basketball courts and tetherball and grounds are still there waiting to be used. It will be our delayed Palm Sunday event.

On a deeper level, with such events and with all our work in our four directions initiative of far north Tulsa, we are fighting against the division of what I call the burgeoning polarization into the Three Americas; what we see happening in our metropolitan area seems to be found elsewhere as well. There is a dominant (always with minority strains fighting against it) “big box store” culture in the surburban areas of individualism, libertarianism, consumerism, and uniformity of “red-state” politics and theology and culture. There is a growing dominant “urban cool” “blue-state”culture in the denser populated areas of downtown and various entertainment and restaurant and artistic districts with consumerism still strong but modified as consuming creativity, and with a stronger “tribal” than libertarian vibe. Both of these Americas are places where different forms of the American Dream might attract you, but they are places where people go to, in various ways, “make it.” They are places with growing numbers of people (but not “peoples”) and therefore they are the places where government and businesses--both run with marketplace mentalities--invest in with infrastructure, entrepreneuriship, and resources.

And then there are the third districts, the abandoned places, the boarded up places, the no sidewalks and streetlights places, the places where post offices are closed and health clinics are closed (with kudos to those who are fighting against this in our area with health clinics beginning to open to reverse this trend) and schools are closed and with community centers and community pools closed or threatened to be closed and with shopping centers closed—even though there are the areas of highest need for these. This is a form of America that both of the other two zones turn away from. The Third America. While those who remain intentionally and would not live elsewhere, or those who can’t afford to live elsewhere and move here but are always hoping to “make it” by leaving, wrestle with growing lack of connection with one another and with those in power. And the land itself becomes disconnected with the people as its ownership transfers increasingly to those who live in the other Americas and as a result of the weakening of the power and voice of those who live here the land itself can be repurposed away from communal needs to the needs of corporations and businesses (where environmental injustice comes in to mirror economic and educational injustice, with landfills and salvages dominating the landscape) owned by those who live elsewhere, and the local businesses and nonprofits that do remain are often struggling against the tide, or are also in some cases adding to the blight.

On Palm Sunday, and as we move into Holy Week, with the simple meal fellowship of Maundy Thursday and the mandate to love one another, with the all too familiar abandonment and destruction of Good Friday, with the despair and sitting with grief of Holy Saturday and with its story of unseen forces still at work getting ready for renewal, with its story of Jesus relocating to Hell itself to turn it into a place not even abandoned by the love of God, and with the story of the unexpected life and the miracles of hope that Easter celebrates, through it all we seek to love the hell out of this world of the Third America, to connect the disconnected on a grassroots level and also to connect the other two Americas with the Third America, the Third Place so to speak. Like the disciples of old, we don’t do it well. But we too remain, or we return, or we relocate our lives because we have been the recipients of a grace that abounds that reminds us that Love overcomes death, injustice, neglect, helplessness, shame, failures. We do not know what the future holds; every month brings new challenges and the same old struggles, but Palm Sunday teaches us that the future of new life is already started.