At the gate of a 13th century Zen Buddhist temple there are two wooden plaques inscribed with Chinese characters: the first reads, “Only those concerned with the question of life and death need enter here.” The second says, “Those not completely concerned with this question have no reason to enter this gate.” (From Mountain Record, John Loori)
In his book, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein says, by way of invitation:
If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
The Sufi poet, Rumi, says, “Out beyond idea of wrong doing and right doing there is a field, I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.”
Our Mission Vision committee has been working on a sign to put at our door: what’s our mission; what’s our vision. They have an invisible sign that says, “If you are a dreamer, come in.”
They’re working on a plan to involve everyone in a process of creating a mission statement; they’re inviting everyone to participate in the process of visioning.
That’s one of about 24 committee who invite your participation, your involvement, your input.
There are two broad categories of connection to describe one’s relationship to this congregation: members and friends.
A member – an official, active, voting member, is one who has signed the Membership Book and has made a recorded financial contribution, of any amount, during the past 12 months. (That requirement is one important way we keep the membership list clean. Those who have signed the book but have not made a recorded financial contribution in the past 12 months are put on an inactive list and are not included in the annual count.)
A friend is anyone who has made a connection with the congregation by attending services or making a contribution or being involved in the work of the church.
We don’t have an enemies list.
There are lots of reasons to form a friendship with this congregation – there are more reasons than there are members, since each person who joins the church has more than one particular reason, and everyone who gets involved and stays involved for awhile goes through a kind of evolution, discovering new things including some surprises – new reasons to keep and to deepen the connections that increase the depth of meaning in one’s membership and, hopefully, in one’s life.
The key word to this evolution is involvement, which implies some kind of commitment.
A commitment is a conscious decision to deepen involvement, as described in St. Exupery’s wonderful story of The Little Prince who tamed the fox and learned life’s most important lesson: “‘To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
There are connotations to the word tame that don’t apply; things like submissive, docile, fawning; insipid, flat. The dictionary definition that’s appropriate for involvement in a Unitarian church is ‘naturally unafraid; not timid.’
Indeed, there are reasons to be cautious about involvement in any organized religious group – the loss of one’s ability to think for yourself, to have your own opinions, ideas and beliefs, and to change as you go, as you grow.
That’s why there’s no theological test or requirement for membership in this congregation. We come from a wide variety of religious backgrounds: Jewish, Catholic, a variety of Protestants, Hindu, Buddhist, theist and non-theist, Humanist.
I like the way 19th century minister Theodore Parker put it: “No one can be excommunicated from the Unitarian church except by the death of goodness in the heart.”
“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince. “You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me—like that– in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day…”
What’s required to make membership more meaningful?
First, you must be very patient. You will sit in the sanctuary and look out the window, listen to the affirmation, hear those who light candles, and realize that your listening is a kind of silent prayer, not one made of words but a quality of thinking and the result of intentional caring.
Then, like the Little Prince, you will say, “I’m beginning to understand…”
No one can define meaningful membership; it’s too personal; but it’s not unique. My working assumption is that we need to make connections, to form meaningful relationships, to tame and to be tamed; my working assumption is that one’s membership becomes more meaningful by being involved with or engaged in things that matter to you.
In addition to making membership more meaningful by being more involved, let me say that sometimes one’s membership becomes more meaningful by becoming less involved! That sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but I also know that when certain kinds of involvement stop feeding you, stop being rewarding, then it’s time to stop what you’re doing and take some Sabbath time, then find ways to be involved that are fulfilling and fit your current life situation.
Yesterday, at the Memorial Service in honor of Tom Porro, Tad and Judy Crawford told me a Tom-story during the reception. It happened decades ago. Tad and Judy were over-involved in the church, each of them leading or serving on five committees. They decided to step back. So they didn’t come to service one Sunday, and Tom noticed. They didn’t come the second Sunday, and Tom noticed. The third Sunday Tom arrived at their house after the Sunday service with a bouquet of daffodils which he handed to them when he got out of his car and said, “So, where have you guys been?!” They came back, sat in the pew and realized that they had been too involved in the work of the church and not enough in their own spiritual nourishment. Their Sabbatical worked!
Making membership more meaningful requires patience – it takes time…it should be a thoughtful, intentional process. It’s about purposeful companionship. It’s about growth; change. It makes membership a verb!
Just as there are many doors in this building – dozens of them – so there are many doors into more meaningful membership.
One of the most effective ways of forming purposeful companionship is the Small Group Ministry Program , which is all about taming – establishing ties. It’s about meeting, and getting a little bit closer every time you meet by sharing things that are going on in your life; it’s about listening, and realizing how important listening is to forming meaningful friendships.
Another way of deepening your involvement is to participate in one of the Odyssey programs – aka adult education — either leading or signing up for one of the programs that’s offered.
An important way of deepening your involvement, especially for those with children, is the Religious Education program – indeed, if you have a child in the R. E. program your participation is required, to one degree or another, in one way or another, since it’s a co-op; the teachers are volunteers, the council is made up of volunteers who work with Perry and Jamie and Jason.
You should know about the Shawl Ministry, which is a group that gets together to knit. They have some ‘rites.’ They meet two Friday’s a month from12:30 to 2 p.m. They have lunch together; they share silent time – knowing that ‘words can be the source of misunderstanding,’ so they use music for their personal meditation time. They have a reading and they knit prayer shawls to give to members and friends who are in a difficult time. In two years they have given 83 shawls to members and friends of the congregation who are going through illnesses or losses.
The shawl comes with prayer that says, in part: “May the one who receives this shawl be cradles in hope, kept in joy, graced with peace and wrapped in love,” and there’s an explanation of the Shawl Ministry mission/vision.
In addition to the 83 shawls they’ve given, they’ve also made financial donations to Seva Foundation that provided eye operations that prevent blindness for ten women in developing countries; they’ve provided micro loans to 24 women through the Kiva Organization as well as other financial donations for one of their members.
In addition to the caring work of the Shawl Ministry there is a Care Committee that reaches out to members and friends in need.
You may be interested in working with the Membership Committee – they’ve been going through a re-organizational period, trying to create better ways to invite visitors who may be looking for the kind of non-creedal approach to religion and spirituality that we offer, as well as ways to welcome those who visit, to help people make a decision about joining, and to integrate those who do join. They’re also working on ways to keep track of folks who stop coming, to find out what’s going on…to reach out, as Tom Porro did with the Crawfords.
Then there’s the Social Justice Council, which we’ll talk in more detail about next Sunday when we celebrate Martin Luther King day – they have lots of specific committees in which you might want to be involved…to make membership more meaningful
There are many doors into the life of the congregation; you will be changed by your involvement and you will change whatever groups you’re part of.
There are stages of belonging, from visiting to regular attendance on Sundays and at other special occasions, to making a commitment in various ways; there are degrees of belonging, but there’s no one way or right way.
It’s about the easiest congregation to join, the most difficult to understand, and the most challenging to put into practice.
It’s a place characterized by individuality, on the one hand, and commitment to other persons on the other.
It’s a place where you’re not told what to believe or to think, but you’re expected to continue to evolve your beliefs and to think more deeply; to become better informed and to grow in your spiritual life.
“Only those concerned with the questions of life and death need enter here.”
Only those who don’t need to be given answers to the essential questions will be comfortable here.
It’s perfectly acceptable to remain ‘in the pew,’ as it were; you’re not expected or required to become more involved; unless you want to ‘make membership more meaningful.’
When I was in my 20’s I spent several years staying away from organized religious, healing a wound that I felt was inflicted on me when I admitted that I didn’t believe in the Apostle’s Creed that the congregation I grew up in recited every Sunday.
Then I had a pre-school daughter and an infant son; my daughter was beginning to ask questions about religion, so one Sunday I attended the Unitarian Church in Wellesley, where I was living and teaching. There was a notice in that Sunday’s Order of Service about the need for a youth advisor; after the service I asked the minister about the job and within a few minutes I volunteered to be the new youth group advisor – when the student is ready the opportunity arrives. I got tamed!
E. B. White penned a little poem that describes the essence of the process of making membership more meaningful; he called it Natural History:
The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.
And all that journey down through space,
In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.
Thus I, gone forth as spiders do
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.