What’s Your Pie?

I came across a post that my friend Kat Liu wrote on Facebook.  She writes: “The other day I read Huffington Post quoting someone as saying, ‘I go to church for pie.’ To be fair, I did not read the rest of the article so maybe there was more to it than that. But the reason why I didn’t read past the teaser is because I had the same reaction that I did many years ago when Unitarian Universalism was first described to me as ‘you can believe anything you want.’ I thought, ‘That’s nice, but why would I join a group for that? I can believe anything I want by myself.’ And I can get pie pretty much anywhere; why would I go to church for it? If that’s the only thing at church that’s drawing people, [then] that’s not enough of a draw. And if pie is not the thing that’s really drawing people, then why aren’t we talking about that instead of pie?”

So the question is:  “What’s your pie?”  What is it about this congregation, about Unitarian Universalism that gets you up out of bed on a Sunday morning to come here?  And please don’t say the fair trade coffee we serve, I already know it’s good to the last drop.  I know this because I am often the one getting that last drop (smile).   But certainly that can not be why you come on Sunday mornings or any other time of the week.

It can’t simply be because of the pie or the coffee or the freedom of not being told what to believe.  These things are not very compelling.

Now you may be surprised to hear that this question is also being asked in congregations of other faiths as well.  I stumbled across a recent blog on Friday asking the exact same question.

This Christian minister listed 13 reasons[i] as to why someone would go to church.  I looked through the list and said to myself;  no, not that one, not that one either, no, that isn’t it, no,  hmm maybe, need to ponder that a bit, no not that one.  And on I went through the list.  I will come back to this list in a moment.

I found another Christian post that also answered this question.  And I found these answers interesting.  This was in the context of churches growing and churches struggling to grow.

This blogger[ii] wrote: “When I visit congregations that are struggling to grow, I hear these types of answers, ‘I grew up in the church.’ ‘I get filled up for the week?’ ‘I was baptized in the church.’ ‘My family has always gone here.’ ‘I love the music and the preacher.’ …

“When I ask the question in churches that are growing, the answers are very different. People say, ‘The worship service and sermon have helped me grow ….’ ‘The Sunday School class I attend challenges me to grow and learn more about what it means to be a Christian.’ ‘Our church is making a difference with our mission team, and we can see the difference we are making in the lives of people we reach out to.’  ‘Most people and churches turned their back on me, but this church accepted me and helped me understand … grace and love …  They were never judgmental.’ ”

Now these comments are from a Christian point of view but the difference between the two sets of answers are in my mind profound.

It was a comment on a Unitarian Universalist blogger’s[iii] post on the obverse side of this question that brought this difference home for me.   The Unitarian Universalist blog listed reasons why the person no longer attends a Unitarian Universalist congregation.   Two of the reasons she gave for not going to church were:

“I don’t actually think church is important for me right now” 

“My needs don’t seem to matter much in church “

The comment in response was the following[iv]:

“My two boys (30’s) also have a problem attending church for similar reasons……maybe not put the same way. It always goes back to one basic reason with many different facets……I, ME, MYSELF
(1) The church isn’t meeting MY needs
(2) I’m only going to church to get something for myself
(3) It’s inconvenient for ME
(4) It interferes with things I want to do

“Consider this approach: Can I plug into the church to use my gifts to help others? Can I give of myself to God and others through the church to help others? Go to church to praise and thank God for my blessings. All the good things you have come from God, including your time.”

Now some translation work might be needed here because many of us may not believe in god.   I find if I substitute the word Life that this comes close to the experience this writer is suggesting.  How can I give myself to Life and others through the church?  Can I offer thanks for Life’s blessings?  How can I show gratitude for all things come from Life, including my time?

And this was the difference between the one congregation that was stagnant and the one that was vibrant.  The vibrant congregation’s members felt their presence at church mattered. They had something to receive and they had something to offer towards the mission of the congregation as well.

Now in the three congregations that I have served in my time as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I have heard similar sentiments from people who have left the church.  They have told me that they think they have grown beyond what Unitarian Universalism can offer them.  They liked the people, they liked what Unitarian Universalism stood for, and they even liked the social justice issues we focused on as a congregation and as a denomination.  But for one reason or another they believed they had grown beyond Unitarian Universalism.    They may, like the Unitarian Universalist blogger, still identify as Unitarian Universalist just as a person who no longer attends Roman Catholic mass might still identify as Catholic.  Or they may have pursued a different faith path and claim a different identity.  Or they may have joined the ranks of the un-churched.

I admit I do not understand how someone can grow beyond Unitarian Universalism.  I hear the words but I don’t comprehend how that can be that someone grows beyond being Unitarian Universalist. Our faith is one of the more challenging faiths that I am aware of because we ask people to “work out your own salvation[v]” as Paul of Tarsus commands the Philippians.  You can’t get more biblical than that but it is one of our principles of our faith which states:  A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  This means working out your own salvation.  It is finding out what saves you from your self and being transformed into a person who is more loving/ more forgiving/ more mindful in living.  It is finding out what saves you from the coldness of heart that is endemic in our society.

But if you are coming here for the pie or for a social club or even for a refuge then you will be disappointed in time because the pie here will cease to satisfy your hunger, the social club milieu will become boring, and the refuge you sought will be undone by meeting people who believe the very things you disdain and their presence here will scandalize you.

Our faith is creedless and therefore we do not ask people to check their brains at the door nor do we ask them to check their god at the door. We covenant to be together as a people engaged in the network of mutuality which is our humanity.  What affects one affects us all. And together we can learn not only to be better people because of this network of mutuality but also in the hopes, in the trust, in the creative interchange that occurs whenever two or more people gather to create a better world filled with justice, love and equality. We do it first here and then out there in the world.

This to me is the draw of our faith.  This for me is my pie.  And frankly, I can’t do this on my own and neither can you.  I am not like the Buddha who was able to withdraw under the Bodhi Tree and receive enlightenment.  I have my moments of with drawing for meditation or retreat but I must have community in order to practice and integrate what I profess to believe.

James Luther Adams once said that church was the place where we get to practice being human.  What makes this congregation different from all other congregations in Tuscaloosa, guaranteed, is that here when you have a problem you are facing you will not hear a platitude.  You will not hear an easy answer like ‘pray more’ or ‘God doesn’t give you anything more than you can handle.’ Or ‘believe this doctrine and all will be well.’

Instead what hopefully happens is you will find people who will listen, hold you fully present in their lives, and if you so desire talk with you about the situation you are facing and assist you to handle this burden in your life. We do this in community, not alone.

And this was one of the reasons the Christian minister mentioned that made me take pause and say hmm, he wrote we go to church “because we need help to face the issues of life and faith…”  I come to church to hear and learn how I might be able to handle the issues that I am concerned about. Whether that learning takes place in the worship service or in an adult class after the service or even in the conversations we have together.

As minister, I come to be of service to each of you.  Yes, that is my professional role, but it is a role that is not exclusively mine to offer.  Each of you has this role for one another.  I know you have this role because you often minister to me in this place and you minister to each other as well. It is sometimes as simple as a smile or a hug or as profound as an insight shared in a conversation.  Sometimes this is the only place where people receive hugs during their week.  This role is multi-generational.  The children have ministered to me just as surely as the person twice my age though the latter is mighty hard to find in this congregation. (I am 56, who here is 112?)

And the other reason this Christian minister suggested people come to church and I have paraphrased it considerably, “Because we need an alternative to the constant messages of a culture [engulfed in false piety].”

We live in a culture here in the south, though it is also prevalent elsewhere, where false piety is insipid in daily conversations. From our elected leaders to the workplace, false piety is expressed with all the haughtiness of righteousness but with none of the convictions in their character. They wag their tongues in hateful disdain of others and claim they are showing the love taught by their faith tradition.  Their own messiah had this to say about them: Woe to you … , pretenders, who are like white tombs, which from the outside appear lovely, but from within are full of the bones of the dead and all corruption! So also you from the outside appear to the children of men as righteous, and from within are filled with evil and hypocrisy[vi].

Some people come to church to seek sanctuary from this kind of verbal onslaught.  But we offer no comforting balm if all we offer is refuge and not healing.  We do no good if all we do is allow our spiritually wounded to vent about this incessant verbiage that wears down the spirit.  We need to be teaching how we can love our neighbor even when they attack our values of equality.  We need to be teaching how to forgive those who hold us and others in disdain because they, too, are a victim of untruth.   And the spirit of untruth is a poisonous venom that slowly petrifies the society in which we live.  It will take a community of faith to be the antidote of such venom but this only works if the community of faith is inoculated by coming together on a regular basis and lifting up the values we seek to emulate in our lives.

I believe this faith has the antidote to this toxin. I believe this faith works best when done within community.  I believe this is a community that is worthy of committing support through membership.

You may initially come for the pie or the socialization of similar minded folk.  I hope you will stay for the community that can strengthen your spirit and your character throughout your lifetime.

I close with a story.

Once upon a time there was a family that was moving in search of a new community.  On their travels they saw a woman selling fruits and vegetables along the road.  They decided to stop and purchase some for their travel.  They asked the woman about the community they were coming up to and what sort of people lived there.  The woman asked, “Well what sort of community did you leave?” “Oh,” they replied “we left the community because they were filled with deceit and lies.  They were vicious and hurtful to one another.  The community was filled with people who were only out for themselves.”  The woman listened and replied; “Well you won’t like this community then, because it is far worse here.  You be best to go on to the next community.”  The family thanked the woman for her honesty and went on their way enjoying their fruit.

A few hours later another family who was also searching for a new community came upon the same woman and fruit and vegetable stand. They too decided to purchase some for their travels.  And in their shopping they began asking what type of community were they approaching.  The woman asked what sort of community they had left.  “Oh,” the family responded, “We came from a wonderful community.  Everyone was very helpful to one another.  If there was a need, others came forward to assist in filling it. They were people who loved their neighbors dearly and were always making sure that others were doing well.”  The woman responded, “Well, you are in luck for in this community we also seek to love one another and help out in times of need.  You will find this community much to your liking.” The family decided to make their home in this community and the community was exactly as the woman had said. May it be so and Blessed Be.

What’s Your Pie? by Rev. Fred L Hammond delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on 10 Feb 2013 ©