Into the River

The last session of my Domestic Violence Advocacy training course was about preventing and overcoming compassion fatigue, by knowing our limits, and practicing self-care of a broad scope. In the course of conversation, many books, videos, and other resources were suggested. One book from which excerpts were read called out to me, and I bought it at my very next opportunity. It's a bit of a devotional, with short entries divided up by date. Today's started with this story:

It is said a great Zen teacher asked an initiate to sit by a stream until he heard all the water had to teach. After days bending his mind around the scene, a small monkey happened by, and, in one seeming bound of joy, splashed about in the stream. The initiate wept and returned to his teacher, who scolded him lovingly, "The monkey heard. You just listened." ~quoted from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo
As I read this passage, my heart began to beat faster. Yes, this, it seemed to be saying. I continued on, reading Mark's analysis of the story, nodding vigorously as I did so, feeling its application to the pull I've been feeling in my own life and faith (which are, in fact, a large part of my reason for undertaking the DVA training that led me to the book), and within my church and religion.

In his reflection, Mark said, "The river, of course, is the ongoing moment of our living. It is the current that calls us to inhabit our lives. And no matter how close we come, no matter how much we get from staying close with a sensitive heart, nothing will open us to joy but entering the stream."

What are we doing with this life we have, UUs? What are we doing with our faith? Are we talking, reflecting, writing our senators, Facebooking and rallying for justice? Are we sitting by the river, analyzing it, considering it, yelling that it is flowing in the wrong direction? 

I wonder what would happen to us if we jumped in and splashed about. What would that look like? 

This song came on my playlist the other day. I had previously appreciated its raw satire, the way it jabs not-so-subtly at organized Christianity (or is it capitalism? Hard to tell, and that says something, too), the commoditization of faith, the way it digs in its claws and squeezes you for more. This time, though, I heard a rebuke of much of the conversation happening in my own religious tradition. 

And as I listened in horror, thinking about all of the conversations I've been privy to lately, about growing our numbers, about getting more pledges, about how we can reach out and make ourselves appealing to families, to singles, to the next generation, in the name of growing membership and concurrently, money. We're thinking about what people can do for us, instead of what we might do for those people.

I know, I KNOW that mission takes money. I know that the core drive behind wanting to grow our membership is to share our joy, and the drive behind wanting more money is to be able to go out and live our mission.

But folks, we've got it backward. We're listening, but we're not hearing.

I've been in marketing off and on for years. In fact, that background is part of what landed me almost immediately on a committee - Publicity. When I walked through the doors of my congregation, my biggest fire was how we could reach out and get other people to do the same (sound familiar?).

One of the lessons that most stuck with me from a former marketing director is that bad promotional materials talk about features and good promotional materials talk about benefits. People don't care about Gorilla Glass, they care that when they drop their phone, it won't shatter into a $200 repair bill. People don't care about state-of-the-art security algorithms, they care about resting easily after shopping online, instead of worrying about identity theft. No one cares if your online store carries everything from books to jewelry to groceries, they care that they can have back to spend with their families time and money that would otherwise have been spent running from store to store.

People don't care that your church or your denomination needs more members. They don't even care that much that if only they'd give you more money, you could do amazing things. We should not be asking one another how we can attract young people or families or single people to our congregations (I've taken to cringing every time I hear this question). We should be asking how we can reach out and help those people get their spiritual needs met, to take care of themselves (and maybe someday, that self-care will allow them to offer help to others. Maybe not.), even if they never walk through our doors or give us a dime.

So I feel a bit out of sorts in our publicity committee right now, because I'm not living my faith at church. Not in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings, nor in committee meetings, not even teaching religious education classes.  I'm living my faith on the sidewalk of the women's health clinic on Saturday mornings, and training to advocate for domestic violence survivors. I go to church as a matter of self-care, because singing and meditation and the company of others who also want to heal the world fill my bucket. I go for the reminder of what it is I want to do for the world and why, and the push and energy to keep doing it.

But those moments on Sunday are me staring at the beauty of the stream, and listening to it babble. The moments I jump in are the raw moments when I'm reaching out to another in their vulnerability.

We as UUs need to get off of our contemplative river bank and JUMP INto that river with both feet. That's the missional, rather than commoditized faith I want to belong to. And if dwindling membership and giving kills us as a denomination? Well, I'd rather we die on a cross saving the world, tearing the curtain of the temple separating us from one another, and leaving something a little more healed and whole behind, than to continue plodding along, storing up the cold treasure of membership numbers or pledges on earth.