Sunday, September 25, 2011

Our Seven Principles, our First Principle, and our Covenant of Right Relations

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 25, 2011

When I was in seminary, I took a class entitled “Worship and Liturgical Arts”, in which we were divided into small groups of three, all from the same denomination, and assigned 10 minute slots of time in which we presented a mini-worship service representing our faith tradition.

These tiny worship moments began each class period; we met in the oaken hall of the seminary chapel with its stained glass, pipe organ, and velvet padded seating, and did our best to present a minuscule version of our liturgy. We were all first-year students and this was a big challenge!

There were three of us Unitarian Universalist students in the class, a distinct minority amid the ranks of the mainline Protestant denominations represented. We were determined to present our faith in a stellar light, proud of our reputation as free thinkers, social justice advocates, and, historically, political catalysts who had helped to bring the fledgling United States of America into being.

So what if the others had their Apostles Creeds and stately prayers? We had our Principles and once we revealed them, surely all would desert their stodgy mantras and climb aboard the UU bandwagon.

The format of the class was that each group would present its worship service at the beginning of the class session; we would meet in the chapel instead of in the classroom and after worship, we would adjourn to the classroom to evaluate and discuss the elements of the worship service for the edification of its worship leaders.

My UU compatriots and I designed a pretty nice 10 minute service; our worship committee here would have been pleased. We settled on a chalice lighting, a hymn, a responsive reading using our Seven Principles, and a benediction. There’s not really much you can do in 10 minutes!

We lit our chalice that morning, sang our favorite hymn “Spirit of Life”, led the responsive reading of our principles, and offered the benediction.

When we went back into the classroom, expecting high praise and the inevitable questions about where the nearest UU congregation might be, the room was strangely silent. Our professor said encouragingly, “Thoughts?” But the silence persisted.

We weren’t sure what to think. At last, one brave man raised his hand and said, “umm, that reading. Those are nice things to say, yes, but they don’t seem very religious. They seem more civic-minded, like something you’d read in a civics textbook.”

This incident has stuck in my mind for a long time and I’ve experimented with various ways of understanding it, of interpreting it, of explaining it. At the time, however, I was dumbstruck and unable to formulate much of a defense. The three of us sat numbly and wondered if we were really going to fit, there at Iliff School of Theology, that training ground for United Methodist and other Protestant clergy in the making.

Our professor gave us a chance to respond to the critique and we did so, perhaps inadequately in our naivete, explaining that our religious tradition was rather different from Protestantism in many ways and that we came from a long line of radicals and heretics who simply didn’t do things in an orthodox way.

But the moment, disturbing as it was, caused me to take a fresh look at the principles of UUism, to try to understand what that student saw there that left him bewildered. And what I saw, as I compared it to the various creeds of mainline denominations, was a profound statement of purpose that emphasized humanitarian behavior toward other humans and the world we live in. That wasn’t religion, to my student colleague. His idea of religion was expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, which reads thusly:
I believe in God the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord:
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

It’s beautiful----and it would never work for us. Too many certainties within this statement. Too many assertions that are difficult to prove. Too many otherworldly and restrictive pronouncements that make entry into the religious tradition seem exclusive and narrow, at least to my mind.

Now, as a person with an American Baptist upbringing, I was quite unfamiliar with creeds when I went to seminary. The Baptists have historically been non-creedal in that they have never tried to tell their members exactly what to believe, though I understand that the Southern Baptists have now broken that unwritten rule and do have a statement of required belief.

But I’d never had to pledge allegiance to a set of statements of religious belief, like the Apostles’ or Nicaean creeds. “I love Jesus and want to take him into my heart” was no problem for me as a child and I find it appealing even now, now that I know much more about who Jesus was and what he taught. That simple sentence only meant that I wanted to live as Jesus lived, with passion for justice and mercy and love of humankind.

I know that many devoted Christians don’t necessarily accept all the statements in the creeds they recite and the beliefs of many non-creedal denominations are stated more generally than explicitly.

But I love our Seven Principles. I find them deeply religious in that they point out the importance of how we treat each other and the earth and its creatures. That, to me, is a sacred charge, a sacred responsibility.

In carrying out these precepts, I believe we also stay in better relationship with the power beyond human power, the power that many call God and which I think of as the mysterious and sacred laws of the Universe, not fully understood but in a partnership with all its living creatures.

As you may have learned when you took Philosophy 101 in college, any philosophical movement has a main guiding principle, called the First Principle.

This is the statement that sets the trajectory for the development of the philosophy, in our case the rest of our faith tradition’s commitments. This is the Overture, if you think of it in musical terms, the piece that says who we are and what we are about.

Our First Principle, I believe, is profound and it sets us apart from many religious faiths, most of which mention a deity in their first principle. Let’s look at it together. You’ll find it in your O/S, on the back page.

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

From this simple statement flow all the rest of our principles, moving from a faith in the value of a human life to the responsibilities dictated by that faith in human life: justice, equity and compassion, acceptance, encouragement, a search for meaning, the right of conscience, the use of the democratic process, the goal of peace, liberty and justice for all humankind, and a recognition of our place in the interdependent web of existence, not our pre-eminence, but our partnership with others in the universe.

For me this is much more relevant to my life than any creed based on otherworldly teachings. It gives me freedom and a framework for my behavior. It is a covenant, not a creed, a mutual agreement, not a set of required beliefs.

As Sandy and I talked about how we wanted to shape this service, we shared stories of what it was like to raise our sons within this faith. We agreed that we had watched our sons learn about themselves and other people as they studied these principles.

We saw them discover who they were and how to be in good relationship with others and with the earth. We saw them thinking through the big issues of life, not looking for easy answers but for the answers that made sense to them. Our boys learned that our principles are strong guides for life, even life in these difficult times.

What I most appreciate is how my son Mike has taken seriously our First Principle. It may have been because others in our congregation respected his worth and dignity enough to be honest and caring with the teenage Mike about behaviors that were interfering with his success. They told him, honestly and caringly, what they felt when he behaved in certain ways.

And to his credit, because (I like to think) he had learned that this was the right way to do it, he listened, he apologized for mistakes he’d made, and he vowed to do better. And then he did what he said he’d do. And his life changed dramatically.

Our First Principle sets the trajectory for our life together as a community and as a religious faith. It’s hard, though, to discern just how to respond to a person whose behavior has been hurtful, perhaps even cruel or criminal.

I’m occasionally asked “what about Hitler? Osama bin Ladin? Murderers, rapists, abusers? Do they have worth and dignity?” And my answer is yes---but no person, regardless of his or her worth and dignity, must be allowed to hurt others deliberately or to wreak havoc within a community. All the worth and dignity in the world cannot exempt a person from taking responsibility for hurtful actions.

And our own sense of our worth and dignity is essential to our ability to act appropriately in our relationships with each other, with the earth, and with ourselves. When we act out of an understanding that all creatures, human and others, have worth and dignity, our interactions with them take on new meaning and importance.

A couple of years ago, the board of our congregation undertook the writing of a valuable document, a covenant of right relations to help us deal with the inevitable misunderstandings and hurt feelings that can arise easily in any community.

A task force of members of the board, the committee on ministry, and myself collected and examined covenants written and adopted by many other UU congregations. Some were very general, some very specific, and, in the long run, we created a document that we brought to the congregation for discussion, an event that took place about a year ago. We read it together a few minutes ago.

We discussed it as a group, made adjustments here and there, and, in February of this year, it was adopted unanimously by the congregation. It is a set of promises we make to one another, promises based on the goals set forth in our Affirmation statement. Let’s say our Affirmation together: “Love is the spirit of this congregation and service is its practice. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek truth in love, and to help one another”.

By approving the promises which fulfill this great covenant, we agreed to be careful with our relationships with each other and to behave toward each other with peaceful responses, loving action, and service to one another and to the community.

I think the decision to write and vote democratically on this Covenant of Right Relations shows a clear commitment to our Seven Principles and recognizes them as religious actions.

When I was a teenager, trying to sort out the many do’s and don’t’s of Baptistness---no dancing or drinking or cardplaying or worldly movies---I happened upon a scripture text that made infinitely good sense to me. It probably happened when my Sunday School class was studying the Hebrew prophets and we read this text in the book of Micah, chapter 6, verses 6-8:

In this interchange, an unknown seeker asks a probably sarcastic question of the prophet: “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

And the answer comes thusly: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

For me, this said it all. It dispensed with fretting over what movies might be worldly, whether dancing was allowed, whether drinking a glass of wine was evil, whether any of these sacrifices were going to appease and mollify a stern Father God.

Doing the right thing was more important than all the sacrifices in the world. And that became my inner plumbline, the conscience which directed my actions.

Our Seven Principles are guidelines for right living, for living in ways that affirm and promote justice, kindness, and humility in the light of all that is sacred.

Our First Principle states that every person, every person, has worth and dignity inborn and that respect for that worth and dignity must be part of our response to all persons, even when they behave badly. For to do otherwise is to damage our own sense of worth and dignity.

And our Covenant of Right Relations is where the rubber meets the road; it helps us sort out both our own behavior and how we respectfully address the behavior of others, always remembering that each of us is worthy of respectful treatment.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the universe are at their best when we are respectful and honor the worth and dignity of all. May we strive to be at our best as we live together in this Beloved Community. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

NOTE: The Covenant of Right Relations mentioned above is printed in an earlier post. Scroll down, thou good and faithful reader.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

One of the difficult things about ministry...

is the need to listen to someone talk about the many ways in which the someone is rejected by those he or she loves. I can think of several folks over the course of my life who have had this habit; some were teenagers who, one hopes, will get the picture soon and quit relying on whining as a way to get what they need or think they need.

Whining can take several forms but the most annoying, to me, is the insistence on others' responsibility for the "victim's" behavior. I've heard fellow ministers, particularly those who have a hard time with congregation after congregation, refuse to consider how he or she might be complicit in the so-called victimizing. I've heard younger siblings (mine and others') translate a well-deserved retaliatory move as a deliberate, unprovoked attack (no, there's no excuse for violence, but, hey, we were kids). I've heard layleaders blame the minister for everything wrong in the congregation. I've heard middle schoolers cry bully when they had gone too far in pestering another student and got taken down a peg or two (no, there's no excuse for real bullying and it does need to be addressed, but it's very hard to sort out sometimes).

In each case, the victim refused to look at how his (or her) own behavior might have been inappropriate and had contributed to the negative response he got. Instead, it was all somebody else's fault and he (or she) was determined to bear up as best he (or she) could. Of course, that often means that the rejection will continue, rather than be addressed constructively.

Last time it happened, it was with a longtime acquaintance whose church (not mine) had not responded to him in the way he felt it should have; he's also on the outs with most of his family. I listened for awhile and then responded "it sounds like you've been rejected a lot in your life. Have you looked at why that might be happening?". I was thinking he might tell me how he thought he had contributed to the problem, but he wasn't there at all. Instead, I got a long list of all the ways he'd been rejected---by his church, his ex-wives, his children, his former friends.

I thought back to my history with this person and mentally noted all the ways he expects others to serve him, his rather alarming appearance, his taking advantage of others' kindness, and I quit pursuing the topic. It wasn't going to change his behavior.

I'm not a therapist. I recommend therapy quite often to people who bend my ear about how badly others treat them. I tend to think that we often invite the reactions people have to us and it's important to sort out which of those reactions are meaningful and which are just because someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That "poor me" persona is hard to be around. Sometimes people really deserve pity and don't deserve the kind of rejecting response they get. I'm inclined to think, however, that most of those who listen to whiners wish that the whiner would grow up, get a shrink, and get a life.

Monday, September 19, 2011

As I'm sitting down to start writing Sunday's sermon...

I'm struck by how much fear influences our behavior. Even me, Ms. Kitty the Dauntless Proprietress of the Saloon and Road Show. I am often (always?) on guard against the possibility that I may be wounded somehow by another's behavior or opinions or ideas. I pre-defend myself in subtle and not so subtle ways.

I pre-purchase pain, as my mentor the Rev. Robert T. Latham has so aptly put it. I expect the worst while wishing for the best. It's probably an outcome of my history, but my history doesn't begin to compare with that of others who have been far more traumatized by life than I.

Walking Bush Point Road this morning, enjoying the crisp air and thinking about conversations I've had lately, I suddenly was gripped by the realization that we humans are all afraid, we are all in pain, and our behavior reflects our desire not to experience any more pain. Consequently we overreact to opinions and ideas that are not our own, we may even demonize those who are different, and we personalize chance remarks that seem to reflect our fears. I'll bet some of you right now are wondering if I'm talking about you! See what I mean?

I'm not talking about you, I'm really talking about me. But you are welcome to wear these shoes too if they fit.

Anyhow, the Covenant of Right Relations that my congregation voted in last winter will form the centerpiece of this sermon and as I re-read it, I recognized that, though this document may seem general and idealistic, it is a true effort to deal with the pain of human living, that pain often connected to conflict and discomfort between people who share a community.

I print it here for your perusal. It was the effort of a task force who looked at the CRRs of several congregations and used the inspiration received from those documents to create this one.

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Whidbey Island

Covenant of Right Relations

Love is the spirit of this congregation and service its practice. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek truth in love, and to help one another.

Our promises:
¥ We warmly welcome all.
¥ We speak with honesty, respect and kindness.
¥ We listen compassionately.
¥ We express gratitude for the service of others.
¥ We honor and support one another in our life journeys, in times of joy, need and struggle.
¥ We embrace our diversity and the opportunity to share our different perspectives.
¥ We address our disagreements directly and openly, and see conflict through to an authentic resolution.
¥ We serve our spiritual community with generosity and joy, honoring our commitments.
¥ We strive to keep these promises, but when we fall short, we forgive ourselves and others, and begin again in love.

PS. Our congregation mulled it over, discussed it thoroughly, and voted it in last winter.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Milestones and Transitions

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 11, 2011

Three years ago, on our first Sunday in this building, I told you a Sufi story that I’d like to repeat today because I think it has as much meaning for us now as it did then. It goes like this:

High on a far off mountain, a little spring flowed out of a hidden source. As the water from the spring flowed down the mountain, it passed through all kinds of places, rocky ravines, quiet meadows, past beaver dams and through lakes and ponds.

Sometimes the little stream leaped and danced and bubbled as it raced down a canyon or sometimes it drifted lazily through a forest meadow or even disappeared underground for a short distance. It had never encountered an obstacle that it couldn't surmount, either by leaping over it or going under it or around it or wearing away the hard rock that captured it.

But one day it reached the edge of a vast desert. "Hey, no problem," said the little stream to itself. "I've never been stopped by any obstacle before. No desert is going to stop me now!"

So the stream flung itself at the desert. And its waters disappeared, absorbed by the sand. It threw itself at the hot desert sand again and again. And every time, its waters disappeared.

"This can't be," said the stream. "If the wind can cross the desert, certainly I, a stream, can cross it too!" And it continued to fling itself at the hot sand. And every time, its waters disappeared.

"But it is my destiny to cross the desert," cried the stream, in despair. And as it rested dejectedly at the edge of the desert, getting its strength back, and wondering what to do next, it heard a small, still, whispery voice. And this is what the stream heard the desert say.

"You can't cross the desert using your old ways," said the desert. "I am not like a boulder or a tree or a rocky ledge. It is no use hurling yourself at the desert like that. You will never cross the sand this way; you will simply disappear or turn into marshland."

"But how I can get across?" cried the stream. "I don't know any new ways; I only know the old ways. The wind can get across the desert. Why can't I?"

"The wind is your new way," said the desert. "You must let the wind carry you across the hot sands."

"How can that be?" asked the stream. "How can the wind carry me?"

"You must let yourself be absorbed into the wind," said the desert. "The wind will catch you up in that way and carry you across the desert."

"No!" cried the stream. "I am a stream with a nature and an identity all my own. I don't want to lose myself by being absorbed into the wind."

"But that's what the wind does," said the desert. "The wind will catch you up and carry you across the desert and set you down again very lightly so you can become a stream again. Trust me and trust the wind."

"But I might not be the same stream on the other side of the desert, if I've been absorbed by the wind and carried a long way. I won't be myself if I let the wind carry me and set me down again in a new place."

The desert understood the stream's fear but it also understood the mystery.

"You're right," said the desert. "But you won't be the same stream, no matter what. If you stay here, you will turn into a marshland and that's not a stream either. If you let the wind carry you across the desert, the real you, the real heart of you, the essence of everything you truly are, will arise again on the other side to flow in a new course, to be a river that you can't even imagine from where you are standing now."

"How can this happen?" asked the stream, mystified by this new idea.

"The wind has always done this," said the desert. "It takes up the water and carries it over the desert and then lets it fall again. The water falls as rain and it becomes a river, joined by waters from all over the world which have crossed the deserts to come together."

"But can't I just stay the same?" asked the stream.

"You cannot in any way remain the same," whispered the desert. "Movement is your very nature. It will never cease until your true destination has been reached."

As the stream considered this, it began to remember where it had come from and it had a memory deep in its heart of a wind that could be trusted and a horizon that was always out of reach but always a new beginning.

So the stream took a deep breath and surrendered itself to the power of the wind and the wind took the vapor of the stream in strong and loving arms and took it high above the desert, far beyond the horizon, and let it fall again softly at the top of a new mountain.

And the stream began to understand who it really was and what it meant to be a stream. (Adapted from versions by All Souls UU in Washington DC and Leonard Ingram)

Why might I tell you this story again, at the beginning of yet another new year? It’s because three years ago we had a challenge----how to become a congregation with a new home, new faces, new ways of serving each other and our community. We rose to that challenge and learned to be the congregation we were at heart: able to use our new home for the good of the community and for our own good, even though it was scary and we knew we had to change from our old ways of doing things.

Now we have new challenges to face during the coming year. First, we have lost three mighty oaks from our congregation during the past several months: Baird Bardarson, Peggy Bardarson, and Malcolm Ferrier. The loss of these three leaders has created a hole in our hearts as well as in our community. As we think about what these three leaders did for this congregation, we may wonder how we will ever fill their shoes.

Second, every week we welcome new faces, new friends with new ideas, many of whom keep coming back and contributing fresh understandings, asking good questions, becoming members and friends within the community. It’s exciting to meet so many new and wonderful folks as they come through these doors, but it can also be a challenge to remember all the new names, all the new faces, and give tribute to all the new ideas they bring.

And third, I recently let you know that I will be retiring from my ministry here at the end of next June. That means another new challenge, to find the right minister to serve you after I have begun my new life in retirement.

Like the little stream trying to cross the desert, this congregation is facing the need to change yet again, to learn new ways of being together, to step into the shoes left by our three late leaders, to involve our new folks in groups and gatherings, learning about them and cherishing their company, and to learn to work with a new minister, someone different from me, someone whose ideas are fresh and new, someone who will attract even more visitors and friends into this community, and bring a vision of service and spiritual life that will stretch and transform this congregation once again.

I believe that this congregation is ready to meet these challenges, ready to thrive in new ways, ready to bring new service to each other and to the community around us. I look forward to an exciting and productive year together. Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Revenge and its aftermath...

are not pretty. Rightfully enraged by the terrorist attacks on us on Sept. 11, 2001, the United States responded vengefully, wreaking havoc on lands and peoples thought to be complicit in the development and sponsorship of fanatical extremists. Those men, who used their anger against the Western way of life to try to destroy the symbols of that way of life, were wrong for what they did, but we too were wrong in responding vengefully.

In the ten years since that dreadful day, we have not gotten better as a nation or as a democracy. We have become polarized over religion, polarized over social issues, polarized over politics. For a few brief moments, post-9/11, we seemed united as a nation and the world was united with us.

Now, and in my opinion largely because of our vengeful response, we have estranged ourselves from much of the world, from our own best interests, from our own best nature. The terrorists (or the guiding light behind the terrorists) somehow knew that to do something unspeakable to us would encourage us to bankrupt ourselves financially, morally, and spiritually, in an attempt to get revenge. And that is exactly what has happened.

We have largely forgotten the heroism of those who responded immediately to the destruction, the courage of the first-responders who sacrificed themselves for others, the bravery of those on airplanes who called home to say goodbye and then deliberately crashed the fateful plane in a Pennsylvania field instead of in the White House.

We call up their memory on each anniversary, we support their families and loved ones, and we grieve their deaths and disabledness. But we do not let their heroism deter us from our need for revenge. And that is where America made its big mistake.

We now are on the brink of financial disaster, neighbors and friends are alienated over treatment of those considered "The Other", whether gay, lesbian, Muslim, Mexican, or anyone different, millions are jobless because of the financial decisions of corporations whose primary concern is profits, not people. And the entire world population is affected by these conditions in our land, because we called for revenge, not for rebuilding of connections, not for diplomacy or negotiated peace, not for recognition of the ways our privileged lives had impinged upon others we did not even know.

On this ten year anniversary, I honor the survivors, the heroes, the ones who responded to tragedy with love. I mourn those sacrificed by others' anger. And I cry for my nation, this land I love, which made such a rash decision post-9/11 to go to war instead of finding a peaceful and non-violent response.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The cat came back...

though not the very next day. We gave it five days of a good try, but when I got the message from Bill yesterday morning that Max had holed up in a corner of the shed's "attic" and wouldn't come out, we both decided this wasn't working and I went to get him.

It took 20 minutes of coaxing and dropping the key words "a little something", "a little sip (of halfnhalf)", "home", "petting", but eventually he scrambled dustily out of the hideyhole he'd found (I think it was quite a tight fit because I could hear him scratching as though he were trying to turn around in a small space), came to me, and I grabbed him.

I had to stand on a ladder to do all this coaxing and I wasn't sure he would be coaxable, but now my Mad Max is home again, much to his delight (and, secretly, mine). It was lovely to have him back, to rollick down the road with me to get the paper this morning, even to have him once again lording it over Loosy and Lily, who are not exactly thrilled--more resigned than anything.

I'm not sure what is going to happen next. It's clear he's too attached to me and too afraid of others to be transplanted easily. It may be that I'll find a way to take him with me next summer when I move or maybe even I can return him to the farmer who gave him to me in the first place. At the farmers' market yesterday I asked him what he thought and he said he'd check with his family.

It was interesting to notice what his return has meant to my spirits. I had worried about him constantly while he was gone, hoping for the best and missing him. The responsibilities of pastoral ministry with my congregation right now are particularly heavy and I am looking at another major memorial service and after-care very shortly. Max's return relieved one major concern and I feel much more able to cope with it all.

This weekend I have my friend Sue visiting till Tuesday morning. Today it's church, a lunch bunch at the local Chinese place, and a music party tonight here at my house. Fun all day long! And Max is back. Whew.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Spiritual but not Religious?

There's been quite a bit of conversation, pro and con, about a recent blog post by a UCC writer here. The writer has an interesting style and made me laugh because she's genuinely funny in her frustration.

But several responses I've read criticize the snarky tone of her post and express some readers' own frustration with the snarky approach, as well as their own take on the S but not R person. There's certainly room for many opinions on this topic. Mine tends to be that she's being snarky about a collective SBNR person she meets, not an identifiable one. Yes, she's lumping them all into one category, when I can think of more than one type of SBNR, and maybe that's overgeneralizing on her part. But she's funny and frustrated and she has a point of view that many of us may share.

She's reacting to the SBNR who would rather avoid entanglement with an actual community of seekers and who lumps all religious people into the category of hypocrites/social climbers/weirdos/gullibles who'll believe anything they're told by a clergyperson. I think that's a legitimate concern, but she doesn't explore the whys.

SBNRs, I notice, have often been turned off by conventional religious paths and have simply decided not to look any longer, finding their community needs met by civic causes or family groups or 12 step programs. I'm not sure there's anything wrong with that. Conventional religious paths do seem to attract their share of hypocrites, social climbers, weirdos and gullibles. But all communities have them----civic groups, families, 12 steppers, you name it.

As I was walking this morning, checking out the sweet pea seed pods on the road to see if they're ready for harvesting, I thought of where I most encounter the SBNR phrase. I've seen a lot of it over the years, particularly every time I check out to see if anyone remotely interesting has turned up in my neck of the woods.

And the SBNR phrase seems to appear quite frequently in the profiles of those fellows who (if you can tell anything from an online profile) are trying way too hard to be cool. They talk about how they love to ski and boat and take long walks on the beach. I'm guessing they wear one or more gold chains, sport a bit of chest hair under their carefully unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts (it's hard to tell from the photos), and the SBNR phrase is calculated to seem cool.

Unfortunately, it also says "I would prefer not to think too hard or commit to something larger than myself". Sheesh, give me a good die-hard atheist (well, maybe not Dawkins or Harris) or agnostic (are agnostics die-hards?) or even a not-too-conservative Christian. When I talk about the big questions of life, I want someone who can offer a point of view that is meaty, not overly cynical, and who isn't annoyed by an opposing point of view if offered mildly.

So I'm on both sides of this question. We do need to think about why people opt for SBNR instead of aligning with a religious community and we might want to clean up our acts. If an SBNR person starts sniffing around our congregations, let's treat them gently and not reinforce their stereotypes; they take a little TLC and may eventually realize that a congregation can be spiritual AND religious.