I dreamed on Thursday night that I was driving my old car, a bright red Toyota Corolla, down Chittenden Lane (which is just across the way from the church) to have dinner with Betsy and Ralph Gordon. There was a bit of a cooking mishap. Right before my arrival, a little black, hairless dog had died and Ralph, being practical, had tried to cremate it. Betsy, also being practical, had mistaken the meat on the fire for something edible and so had served it for dinner. Their son Alex quietly pulled me aside to inform me, with a wry, apologetic smile, that I had eaten some of the black dog, and I was feeling rather sick to my stomach but more over the idea than the actual meal. "Oh my god," I thought. "I ate dog." But one wants to be an appreciative guest so I went to my car feeling "oh well, everyone makes mistakes, and other than eating the dog by accident, it was a really nice dinner."
I drove very slowly down the lane and then off the road until I realized I was driving on a footpath. I looked out the car door and realized I was at the North River. One more inch and my car and I would have driven into the North River. The water and the wheel had met. "Oh my," I thought, and so left the car and began to walk up the lane again, where I found a soaked roll of bills. A big roll of bills, in fact mostly twenties. I put the soggy roll in my pocket and walked on past the Gordon's house, back up the hill. It was dark dusk, and warm. I was walking back up the hill to church. And then I woke up.
A funny dream, certainly one that will give the Gordons a kick when they hear about it. But full of serious religious symbols, and a reminder to me that beyond our appearance as a pretty white clapboard church full of smiling people, we deal with life and death mysteries here, too, and every day.
The little black hairless dog I recognized immediately as the Mexican xoloitzcuintles dog, sacred to the Aztecs who believed they were guides in the afterlife, and who often ate them at huge banquets as magical cure-alls. (I didn't know that last part until after I had the dream and was researching the little dogs; so you can enjoy the fact that my unconscious mind cast Betsy and Ralph Gordon as an Aztec high priest and priestess.) I'm sure that the North River in my dream was standing in for any mythical body of water one crosses over to the afterlife (perhaps the River Styx), or to the magical isle of wisdom. And if you remember your Greek mythology, you may remember that it costs money to cross the River Styx, and see that bill roll I picked up in my dream as someone's fare, left on the shore for me to find, but not yet to use.
It was a dream that stayed with me all day and even after that. I had been meditating all week on the symbol of the crossroads, that out-of-bounds place in folklore where workers of magic in all cultures have cast spells (because they are no one's territory, literally "no man's land"), and thinking about the road we are on both literally and symbolically.
It is no coincidence that at the end of my dream I was walking uphill toward the church, towards the crossroads of River Street, West and Dover. Literally, if you walk out the front eastern-facing door of our meetinghouse, you won't drive into a river …but you will fall right into River Road. People who rent this building for weddings often say to me, "Why in the world would you people build a church RIGHT ON THE ROAD like that?" "Silly isn't it." I say. "I have no idea why the engineers who built this road paved right up to the church steps. Because of course, the church was here long before the road was."
They are sheepish. Of course. This is an old church in a not-as old town. The road we are on is River Road, crossed at odd angles by West Road and Dover. It is, you may have noticed, a potentially dangerous intersection. I rather like it that way. Our physical location is one that requires one to stop and slow down, look both ways a good function for a church to have. Every generation of a church ought to be one that persuades its people to stop and look both ways.
We stand at a crossroads as a congregation today in a few ways. First of all, it is a new era for the American mainline church in general, and no less so for First Parish. Our trends in attendance, leadership, stewardship and how we function as a community are very much in step with what is happening in the mainline church all over the country. We are lucky. While the mainline church all over America is declining rapidly, we are not.
At one time, and not in the so-distant past, the typical church on Main Street in Anywheresville, America was a respected institution. It was a garden-variety Protestant church, and its pews were full on Sunday mornings because America had yet to become as religiously diverse as it is today, and for most of the nation Sunday morning was a time to be in church. It was not a time for shopping, as there were no stores open on Sundays. It was not a day for sports, as that would have been considered outrageous; an affront to American values. It was a time when respectable citizens were in church, and clergy were men. They had wives at home, they made visits on foot to the sick in body or in heart, they conducted rites of passage, they preached from the Bible and only the Bible.
Nowadays, church is one option among many. The ministry has changed dramatically clergy are expected to know and be trained in leadership skills and pastoring issues that the clergy of yesteryear never imagined. We are no longer specialists, but generalists.
The needs and expectations of the church-going public have also changed drastically. Unless Americans are in the Bible Belt or in a very small rural community, they don't have any pressure to attend a house of worship on the Sabbath. If they do choose to do so, they often find a congregation through what we refer to as "church-shopping."
Church, in this day and age therefore, is a product that people may or may not buy, or buy into. Folks who were raised in one denomination skip to another they're free to do so and skip from congregation to congregation to find the one that best suits them. It has to have certain programs, a good Sunday school, a minister who gives good sermons and appeals to their moral sensibilities, and a pretty building. They have to like the people. The web site should be snazzy and appealing to get them there in the first place (for this at our own church, we thank Debi Meddaugh!). At long last, if the people are friendly and nice enough, the minister likeable enough, the programs diverse enough to meet their needs, they may join. And they may make a financial contribution around that time (whether they join or not) to signal their approval, to say "I am willing to cast my lot with this community."
And then, if they're open to it, they may get the surprise of their lives. The place starts to affect them. They start to personally care about the members a lot. Worship services that were once pleasant become intensely unpleasant on occasion the silence during the prayer, for instance, awakens an old hurt, or a choral anthem is so beautiful it brings tears. A sermon may upset. The way the congregation works begins to interest them, and they agree to be part of it. They usher, host a coffee hour, agree to teach the children, join a committee, or take on another kind of leadership role and suffer their first disillusionment.
And then their second.
And if they endure a first and a second disillusionment with their church (it's now "theirs," you see), they find that they're in love enough with the vision and the potential of the community and its principles to stay on the team. If they don't, they start to think of leaving, searching for the elusive perfect community where no one will hurt or disappoint them, where they won't be challenged and changed.
This is what it means to be on the road together. It means to stay the path and to know that the journey will transform you, and to embrace that as a good thing. We give our hearts. We share our spirits. We suffer together and we celebrate together.
And at this time of year we look at our wallets and we say, "What will I give of my money in the coming year to make sure that this community not only exists for today's faithful and for tomorrow's seekers, but that it thrives?" To think of it another way, how much value do I place on an institution that represents and lives out my values? Without a Unitarian Universalist perspective and local congregation in my life, how impoverished would the world feel to me and mine?
This isn't about a price tag and shopping, it is about humility and awe at how, when we find a religious community to which we choose to give our allegiance, it can make demands on us. We find, to our surprise, that these demands deepen our sense of life's very meaning, and make us less petty, preoccupied people. We find that we are willing, even happy, to give more of ourselves to the shared endeavor. We become invested. And no market fluctuation can touch that investment.
I know that you came in here this morning with your pledge cards filled out and some of you have sent them in already. Some of you put serious thought into your 2009 pledge, even getting out the calculator and budgeting it in, considering your pledge to this congregation not a luxury item like dinners out or $4 coffees or manicures, but as integral as food to your well-being, and so you thought maybe you'd take your food budget for the year and make a portion of that your church pledge. Or you said to yourself, if I spend $150 dollars a month for the YMCA, which helps keep me and my family healthy in body, I ought to consider making a pledge of at least that amount to the church that keeps my and my family's spirit healthy and stands as a witness in the community for things we deeply believe to be right and true. I want to thank those who mindfully considered their pledge and made it as generous as you could not an amount that you won't miss, but an amount that gives you both bragging rights …and griping rights… to this church.
Bob Neely told us last night that we have been relying on Helen Fogg's endowment to fund over 40% of our annual budget. In 2004, he pointed out, a woman who has been dead for over twenty years gave more to this congregation than all its living members combined. And that's just not who we are. We have so much more integrity than that.
And so we stand at a crossroads. We can break our dependence on the past only if we choose together to take a different path, to break old habits and question assumptions like, "No one will notice if I don't make a pledge." Yes, we do notice, and we care when you don't. We wonder what's wrong. Or assumptions like, "There are so many wealthy people in this congregation, my contribution doesn't matter." EVERY contribution matters, my friends. It matters fiscally and it matters spiritually and emotionally.
I deeply believe that when we do take that new road, our relationships with each other will become the deeper for it, and our spiritual growth more significant, for it is where we spend our money that shows what we really worship just as surely as where we address our prayers.
I stepped out of the church on Sunday morning in Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala, a year ago. A little boy approached me. Speaking in Spanish, he asked if I wanted to see Maximon, the resident god of the Guatemalan highlands, a remnant from the indigenous Mayan religion in that Catholic country. I did want to see Maximon. My friends did not, and promised to wait for me.
I negotiated a price with my young, bare-foot tour guide and he took me on a long walk through dusty, filthy streets crowded with people, goats, babies, dogs and tuk-tuks, three-wheeled enclosed scooters driven by brown-skinned people to cart white tourists around. We walked. We walked down hills and through alleyways. I asked the boy questions about himself, his family, and eventually, if he was he sure he knew where we were going!
He did. He was all business. He was eleven years old. He was raising money for a pair of shoes. After that, whatever he wanted, but his mama insisted first, shoes. Finally, we arrived at the shrine of Maximon. I stood outside a low shack to await the summons to pull back the cloth covering the doorway to behold Maximon. Finally getting permission, I pulled back the cloth and stepped into a room thick with smoke. It was filled with leathery-skinned men of middle to extreme old age, guardians (or confradias) of the effigy. Maximon himself, a figure who moves from location to location within the village, sat in the middle of the room, made of carved wood, short and squat and covered with a Mayan poncho-like garment. The face was stern, inscrutable, resembling a Native American warrior, and wearing a kind of gaucho cowboy hat. He had a cigar in his mouth and there were offerings of coins and bills at his feet. Coins and bills from desperately poor people, along with fifths of booze and the odd bottle of Coca-Cola and loose cigarettes from those seeking to have Maximon, god of fertility, god of the crossroads, to grant their wish, to grant them health, to grant them a blessing.How interesting and odd it is to see what people worship, I thought, but I stood for awhile amid the smoke regarding the dignified little figure, and I finally dropped a few coins for Maximon : A couple of pesos for me, and some for my church. I left the coins out of respect and out of hope, and because as a god of the crossroads, I figured all of us could use his blessing.