Mysticism, Empowerment, and Resistance
In publicizing the conference, they evidently blitzed the Austin area, particularly Austin area churches, with publicity a couple of weeks beforehand. Indeed, I received my ad for the conference at my home address just two weeks beforehand, although I live over 200 miles away. The conference spanned 3 days (I could only attend half of it due to other schedule demands that held precedence) and cost $30 total, including lunch each day and snacks at break.
So over 1,000 people showed up for this conference (organizers said they would have been ok with 300). Of this group, only about 10% were members of the clergy. And when they asked for denominational breakdown, less than ten hands were raised when they got to Unitarian Universalists. Similar numbers for UCC and Disciples. Most were Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian – mainstream churches. Joan Chittister and Dom Crossan brought in some Catholics. Few identified as Baptists (it was held in a large Baptist church in downtown Austin that has left the Southern Baptist Convention). So this was a gathering of mostly mainstream Christian lay people – over 1,000! For a conference on Mysticism, Empowerment, and Resistance! May I remind you that this is in the heart of Texas, a very red state with very conservative religion and politics?
Discussions in between sessions were interesting. The three speakers made no attempt to hide the fact that they were well left of center in terms of their religious understandings. Dom Crossan said, ‘Jesus was on the right hand of God, which means that God is left’. The crowd was way beyond giving these three speakers a polite listening – they interspersed the talks with much applause and verbal appreciation and gave Joan Chittister (and then all others following) a rousing and long standing ovation.
The passion of this crowd blew me away. Again, this is mainstream Christianity deep in the heart of Texas, hungry for a message of empowerment and change – and By God, Resistance!!!
My take on this is that something is happening in mainstream Christianity – the hunger of lay people for something radically different and personally engaging is palpable. Joan Chittister at one point challenged pastors to preach this new gospel. Since there weren’t many clergy present, I wonder if we are part of the problem, if we fear what might really happen if we feed this hunger.
I think that often we Unitarian Universalists think that we define the market in terms of liberal values. But if indeed something is happening in mainstream Christianity (and my guess is that there are going to be some overt splits in some of the mainstream churches), how deeply are we going to join them in their powerful push to live more liberal moral values in the wider world and face down those who would define moral values differently? For God, a liberating God, is at the center of this powerful push. Are Unitarian Universalist ministers going to help empower our congregations to meet in the marketplace, so to speak, to join our voices with people hungry to lift up their understanding of God’s action in the world? In churches that are often silenced by people who howl at the very mention of God, let alone the notion of a God who is living through people’s actions, are we brave enough to guide the church to be released from these hostages? To find ways to love these folks and understand that they are suffering a great loss of a church free from what they perceive to be the shackles of God? Yet help congregations to find a powerful mission outside the confines of the sanctuary?
I am going to a new settlement where these questions are very much alive, but they are not yet talked about – they are hidden dynamics. I think it was Joan Chittister who asked what our congregations were fighting about – what issues were taking up space and precious time. I think that those issues are the tip of the iceberg, and the real issue underneath is probably, ‘where is God in the midst of us?’ And whose God? And why God?
I am pondering now the divisive issue in many mainstream churches about homosexuality. For a long time I have been grateful that I am in a denomination that does not have to wage that battle. And basically I am grateful, but I believe that the long and passionate arguments that most mainstream denominations have been engaged in have clarified a deep sense of where the Holy really is – it has pushed the divide that will inevitably happen, I believe, in mainstream Christianity. We do not have that sense of where the Holy is, and for the most part, I believe that we are afraid to confront and passionately argue about the issues that divide us.
More later. This is all compelling stuff to ponder in the midst of packing it all up to move.