Thursday, March 20, 2008

Review of the Large Church Conference in Louisville, KY, March 13 – 16, 2008
Loehr to Sinkford

Since the annual SXSW music and film festival in Austin, TX is one of my annual pilgrimages, I was much chagrined that it fell precisely on the Large Conference dates. Thankfully, part of Austin showed up in Louisville . . .

That would be the Rev. Davidson Loehr, who delivered the sermon for the opening worship. Of course it’s no secret that I adore him, but the wonderful thing about our friendship is that I can critique him without fear of wrath (he’s really a pussy cat).

Davidson’s sermons often contain the same worthy message: that it doesn’t matter what we call our faith, or how we express it; what matters is that we can call it forth, that it might bless the world in the highest sense possible. And it’s okay to fail at this, too – as long as we are seeking the noblest endeavors.

Much of the sermon was a history lesson, as he listed some of the times and places liberal religion was born in the course of human history – in China with Confucius, in India with the Buddha, and so forth (strangely I can’t remember the European examples). Davidson’s point about being a “legitimate heir to liberal religion” means that we should aspire to such a vision for humanity: strong ethics and real gods.

What Davidson often stops short of is identifying what this might look like. He had a wonderful metaphor of the master violinist who rejected a toy tin violin when he was five years old. Tin violins represent the tinsel tunes that sectarian identities play, proclaiming hollow superiority and righteousness. Rather than playing yet another tin violin, his message was that Unitarian Universalism shouldn’t worry about matters of shrill identity, but instead throw our passion and energy into playing real music on a real violin.

Sounds noble. But what’s an average lay-person supposed to take away from this message? Where can we get our hands on this primo violin? How can we learn to play it? I thought Bill Sinkford’s talk a few days later answered this question nicely.

At first he talked about avoiding the issue of race in his first term so he wouldn’t be labeled a one-issue president. This is understandable, but it made me sad. The fear of being labeled as a black man in any number of ways is something white people don’t think of – even the president of a religious organization has to work with this reality.

Later he talked about the necessity of our denomination to “grow up,” that we be able to discuss in a mature manner amongst ourselves just what our saving message is. Some research suggests that we have trouble with this because religious liberals are embarrassed of their faith – our message to ourselves is to play tin fiddles. We need higher self-esteem that will give us the courage to fail!

Sinkford says that every growing church has a saving message, which is usually along the lines of nurturing the human spirit. There are any number of ways to describe what a saving message can be, and no matter what sect or denomination or faith, the best ones are all trying to accomplish the same essential task: to inspire its followers to realize the highest human potential, as individuals and in community. Any spiritual home that is worth its salt has a different way of describing it; for a black church it usually involves a lot more God and Jesus language, a lot more dependence on divine care and a much deeper sense of humility. Whether or not we are theists, we can learn so much from this version of a saving message.

What moved me most about Bill Sinkford’s talk was when he answered the question from the audience of “what does a multi-cultural ministry look like?” There’s that concrete seeking again. What does our saving message look like in the context of a multi-cultural mission? He paused a few moments, then provided a brilliant response: it looks like showing up. It looks like showing up and advocating for marginalized communities in any way possible. These opportunities abound, whether it’s partnering with an under-funded school or attending meetings of an organization that is trying to address gang violence. It is showing up and being a presence that matters. Eventually you will be put to work once trust is established that you are there to make yourself useful – in whatever terms are mutually defined.

While I would love to see more people of color in our pews, what matters much more is reaching out to people who are hurting in our communities, people who are caught in the vicious cycles of their environment; people who are disenfranchised and institutionalized. These people are not victims so much as survivors and warriors. The ones who are trying to make a difference in their communities deserve our support, and they are appreciative of a witness to their efforts. All it takes is showing up, and slowly building relationship.

Bill Sinkford said we need to move beyond differences of theology in these situations, and I would take it a step further. Not only should we be able to translate, we should seek to learn why our theologies are different, even when the essences of our saving messages match up. Why is it that we are content to have ‘religion-lite’? Why do marginalized peoples need a higher-octane religion? We have a lot to learn – much more than we have to teach.

So crush those tin violins like tin cans beneath your feet, and take a walk down the block. Cross the lines. Someone is there with a real violin, and real lessons.

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