“The Old Rugged Cross-Fit” or
“How Are Things with Your Soul-Cycle” or
“Prepare to Meet Your Maker-Space”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on December 2, 2018
At The First Parish in Bedford
Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
“My CrossFit box is everything to me. I’ve met my boyfriend and some of my very best friends through CrossFit. When my boyfriend and I started apartment hunting this spring, we immediately zeroed in on the neighborhood closest to our box—even though it would increase our commute to work. We did this because we couldn’t bear to leave our community. At our box, we have babies and little kids crawling around everywhere, and it has been an amazing experience to watch those little ones grow up. CrossFit is family, laughter, love, and community. I can’t imagine my life without the people I’ve met through it.”
“We’re not being chased to the edge. We’re running toward it.
The edge is always in front of us.”
—RABBI DEBORAH WAXMAN
President of Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
I am perhaps hopelessly old-fashioned. On the day I wrote this sermon, I first read the newspaper at the kitchen table. First of all, I wrote this sermon. I am not like Annie – and a growing number of younger ministers who are able to preach and preach well extemporaneously with nary a note in front of them. And, yes, I read the newspaper. You remember what a newspaper is? How many of you read a hold-it-in-your-hand newspaper on a daily basis? How many of you used to but do so no longer?
Once when I gave a tour of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery we came across the grave of someone and on her stone it said she had invented the Bookmobile. One of our teenagers then asked, “What’s a Bookmobile?” To which one of the adults – it was Ben Bennett – who responded, “Well, do you know what a book is?”
Well, this is a newspaper; and in it are a few stories that are the backdrop to this sermon. First of all there’s the story of General Motors plan to close five factories and layoff 14,000 workers. This is because, you know, of the electrification of the auto industry, the (to me inexplicable) shift away from small cars toward trucks and SUV’s, and the decline in auto ownership due to the proliferation of ride-sharing apps. A lot of people don’t want a car, and that’s probably a good thing.
The second story that caught my eye was, believe it or not, about Glamour Magazine. I ran out and found a copy because – it’s a collector’s item! – the last issue ever to be published because from now on Glamour will only be on-line. I know you’re crushed. The Globe and the New York Times may not be far behind!
And then one more story in the paper was an assortment of tech recommendations for gift-giving and one that was top-rated was for an app called Happy Not Perfect which promises that, if you use it, you’ll be a better person: happier, healthier, more purposeful, better rested. It’s kind of a replacement for going to church. Go to church? No, there’s an app for that!
You know, for a long time I’ve been interested in the evolution of churches and faith communities. A lot of them are going the way of GM and Glamour Magazine, downsizing, going on-line or simply shuttering and calling it quits. Each year in the US, at least 3,500 churches permanently close their doors (some say as many as 7,000) Yes, some big churches are getting bigger, but small churches are getting smaller; and the average church in this country has fewer than 100 members.
Members of the millennial generation (ages 22-37) are less religiously affiliated than ever before. Many are atheists or agnostics while many believe in God or “something more,” are “spiritual but not religious;” and increasingly they “reject conventional religious affiliation while not entirely giving up on their religious feelings.” They are not interested in belonging to an institution with a religious creed and yet they are looking for spirituality and community.
I don’t need to tell you that some of these trends bode somewhat well for us. Organized religion? No, we’re Unitarian Universalists!
The other day at Carleton-Willard I asked my discussion group, “How many of your kids or grandkids are religiously affiliated?” Not one. Let’s try it here: You who have adult children, raise your hand if they are religiously affiliated. (Some hands were raised.) Now raise your hand if they’re not. (More hands were raised.)
The widespread absence of deep community is acute. I was at a meeting with Bedford’s school superintendent last week and he said that his greatest challenge is to build a school community – and especially community across racial or other identities – when everyone’s face is buried in their phone! And there is such fear of “missing out” that students are on their phones constantly.
Loneliness is epidemic. Suicide is the third-leading leading cause of death among youth, a rate that has tripled since I was that age.
And so: While traditional religion is struggling, millennials and many others “are looking elsewhere with increasing urgency. In some cases, they are creating what they do not find.”
A few weeks ago, Jen Johnson and I went to a presentation at Harvard Divinity School by two grad students, Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile. Neither is conventionally religious; traditional conceptions of God hold little or no interest for them. And yet they are keenly interested in new ways that younger people, especially, are finding to meet those needs and yearnings that used to be met by churches. Their project is called “How We Gather”…go ahead google it on your phones. It has generated a lot of interest from many people, including – somewhat to their surprise – from churches that seek to reinvent themselves.
That, just by the way, is why I am preaching to you about this today: Over the generations, this First Parish has done, in my estimation, a pretty good job of reinventing ourselves. Even as I get longer in the tooth, fresh breezes named Annie and Jen and Deb are blowing. There is a healthy generational restlessness that wants change, wants more mutigenerational community, even as we cherish many continuities. It behooves us, I believe, to be attentive to the evolving nature of spiritual community. The How We Gather project offers some useful insights.
In a moment I’ll give you a sample of some of the case studies, the emerging communities that they’ve studied, but there are six common themes – maybe seven (I’ll get to that) – that they’ve seen again and again.
These themes are the icons on the cover of your order of service. I suggest we hang onto these six themes as a way for each of us – and our committees, and our Board, and our staff – to audit our congregational life and to plan our future.
First of all, there’s Community. This is our lifeblood. Whatever our beliefs, we would not be here were we not wanting a community. To see and be seen; to hear and be heard. I remember the story told by the Yiddish author Harry Golden. His father, a confirmed atheist, would nevertheless attend minyan each evening at their synagogue. Confused by his father’s apparent loyalty to a God he did not believe in, he asked him about his strange, faithful behavior. Golden’s father explained: “You know my friend, Schwartz? Schwartz goes to shul to talk to God. I go to shul to talk to Schwartz.” Now, some of you indeed may come here to talk to God, but a whole lotta you come to talk to Schwartz!
Then there’s Personal Transformation. I know that there’s a birds-of-a-feather attraction to like-minded people and it’s nice to compare Priuses and share the latest thing on NPR and say unspeakable things about our deranged president; but, you know, there is a higher standard. One of the reasons we gather is that each of us might get to know people different than ourselves and become a somewhat better person than the person we were when we first showed up.
I’ve heard of churches that do a kind of inventory with new members, asking what about yourself would you want to be somewhat different, what would you change? Would you be more generous, more forgiving, more patient, more??? And then they negotiate a plan for their church participation to actualize that change. Too often we’re like the light bulb joke: Change??? Me??? I don’t want no stinkin’ change!
At this point in my sermon-writing, my mind wandered and I googled a bit and I came across an actual survey of 2000 millennials which revealed that 6 out of 10 of them don’t know how to change a lightbulb. Maybe this church could provide lightbulb-changing tutorials. But I digress.
OK. Social Transformation is another theme. Our greatest UU theologian, James Luther Adams, once said, “A purely spiritual religion is a purely spurious religion; it is one that exempts its believer from surrender to the sustaining, transforming reality that demands the community of justice and love. This sham spirituality, far more than materialism, is the great enemy of religion.” Would that we and our world be somewhat better by our presence here.
Next is Purpose Finding. I think of the words of the Holocaust survivor and therapist Viktor Frankl who liked to quote Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Frankl went on to say, “I can see in these words a motto which holds true for any psychotherapy. In the Nazi concentration camps…those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive.” People who are able to see meaning in their lives, Frankl said, are able to “transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.” Any spiritual community worth its salt, including this one, must help us to find purpose, to find that task which is waiting for us to fulfill.
And then there’s Creativity. Creativity is at the heart of what it means to be human. Art and music, of course, but anything generative. “The cure for boredom,” said Dorothy Parker, “is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”
When Jen and I heard Angie and Casper, the Harvard presenters of this study, we both found ourselves thinking of – of all things – our First Parish haunted house. I’m not sure about personal or social transformation, but that sure was community-building! It sure gave a lot of people some purpose to be the best darned haunted house. And creativity? Wow, was it creative! And creativity feels good.
A new kind of creativity generator is something called a makerspace, which is open to kids, adults, and entrepreneurs with things like 3D printers, laser cutters, computer-controlled machine tools, soldering irons and even sewing machines. Or none of those things. If you have cardboard, legos and art supplies you’re in business. There are storefront makerspaces popping up all over. Do you think First Parish could reinvent ourselves as a makerspace?
The last of the six themes is Accountability. Measuring up; being responsible; saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Authentic effective community is not some do-your-own-thing free-for-all; it is accountable. Being accountable to a higher purpose or higher power or mission; being accountable to one another; and holding one’s self accountable to one’s self. It used to be that a popular bumper sticker, perhaps especially among do-your-own-thing UU’s, was the one that said, QUESTION AUTHORITY. I get it and questioning authority is generally a very good thing to do. It probably wouldn’t be so popular but another worthy bumper sticker might say SEEK LEGITIMATE AUTHORITY. What is authoritative in our lives? To what or whom are we loyal and accountable? We like our freedom but to what are we bound? It is good to know who we are…and also whose we are.
Well, I’ve come all this way in this sermon and have yet to tell you about any of the communities that became the case studies for the How We Gather project. There are 10. Briefly, here they are:
The Dinner Party. A community of 20- and 30-somethings who have all experienced a significant loss, and who get together over homemade food to talk about it and how it impacts their lives. Personal transformation and community.
CrossFit. A chain of fitness centers with affiliate 10,000 gyms (which they call boxes) and 4 million users. Community, personal transformation, accountability. They bring you soup when you’re sick. Miss a session; they’ll call you. Maybe I’ll start doing that when you miss church. There are CrossFit boxes at Hanscom, and in Burlington and in Billerica. They’re all over.
SoulCycle. Spin classes where fitness is associated with empowerment, joyful living, inner and outer strength, and transforming the mind. Classes are called “journeys” and led by inspirational instructors by candlelight. Boston, Chestnut Hill, Dedham.
Ctznwell. Mobilizing the well being industry to change the world. Go figure. Think meditation for activists and Get Out the Vote for yoga classes. It’s everywhere; on-line. Personal and Social Transformation.
U.S Department of Arts and Culture. An action network of artists and cultural workers mobilizing creativity for social justice. Local grassroots bureaus and on-line. Burlington (Vermont). Creativity and Social Transformation.
The Millennial Trains Project. Crowd-funded train journeys across America for diverse groups of young innovators who are thrown together for 10 days and 3000 miles. Wow.
Live in the Gray. Make work more human. They inspire and challenge people to blur the lines between work & life, personal & professional, and black & white. They also advise companies how to adapt their cultures to attract and retain millennials. Conferences, retreats, coaching.
Juniper Path. Contemporary and accessible meditation without dogma. In person and on-line. Often affiliated with Crossfit and Soulcycle.
Camp Grounded. Summer camp for adults. Not quite as nuts as Burning Man, and you can keep your clothes on. Average age 34.
Finally, The Sanctuaries. A diverse arts community with soul in Washington, D.C. Multi-spiritual, multi-racial community of citizen artists to promote spiritual growth and social change.
So what we’re seeing here are new kinds of gatherings, new kinds of communities that share many of the themes and attributes once embodied in churches. What Angie and Casper, the Harvard presenters, did not expect was that their work is be of keen interest to churches, churches trying to reinvent themselves or churches experimenting with new ways of being and doing church.
These too are proliferating, denominational and non-denominational. Locally, our First Parish youth have visited Sanctuary Boston, an experimental UU worship community. Annie has some affiliation with them. Another is Hope Central Church in Boston: Megan used to go there and Annie still goes there for Night Church, a lay-led Sunday evening worship community.
And so there’s one more theme – and one more icon – that the How We Gather people call Something More. If you go to the How We Gather website, there are case studies of these new faith communities. These are communities that align with a religious heritage and that cultivate a connection to that which forms the ground of our being, call that God or the holy or mystery or something more.
When we reinvent this First Parish, when we audit all that we do and plan our future, Something More is another criteria: Do we touch heart as well as head? Do transcending experiences happen here, going beyond the mundane, witnessing the extraordinary even in the ordinary? I believe so. I hope so.
May we, with Blake:
…see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of (our) hand
And Eternity in an hour.
May it be so.
Well, maybe this hour has seemed like an eternity and it’s time to wrap it up.
But here’s one final postscript: A central characteristic of all the groups that the Harvard people studied – both secular and faith-based – is that they’re interactive. They’re not just some old white guy droning on for way too long!
These new communities are more akin to Choose Your Own Adventure Books. And, here again, I show my age because somehow I missed the whole children-and-young-adult Choose Your Own Adventure genre. This week I took a bunch of these books out of the library to fill this gap in my education – along with Glamour Magazine!
These are books that tell a story – up to a point where the reader makes a choice among alternatives that then takes the reader down a different path with very different, unpredictable and possibly exciting alternative outcomes. The First Parish of the future will be even more participatory and more interactive…such that we may Choose Our Own Adventure!
To be put on the back cover:
The Dinner Party
U.S. Department of Arts and Culture
The Millennial Trains Project
Live in the Gray