Lily Pads (6/15/03)
Rev. Gary Cox Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the idea of fate. Oh, I believe God is ultimately in control, and that God knows how everything is going to turn out, which is for the good. But that has much more to do with my concept of faith than with my concept of fate. If I stub my toe on the coffee table as I walk through the living room, I don’t think it is necessarily a part of the divine plan. I assume God has better things to do than play practical jokes on me. And I can’t imagine that at the beginning of creation, while setting this glorious cosmos in motion, God decided that on some June evening 14 billion years later, Gary Cox would stub his toe. That may well be the way things are, but it is not a part of my personal theology.
However, I don’t believe God is an absentee landlord. The deists, you may remember, were the Enlightenment era thinkers who decided God was like a clockmaker. Deists believed—and still believe—that God designed and built the world, sort of wound it up, and then set it in motion. But after that, all God has been able to do is sit back and watch—perhaps with a sympathetic eye—as things unwind.
I guess my theology lies somewhere between those who think fate determines every little thing that happens, and those who believe God is basically uninvolved in the universe. I think the Spirit is at work in the world. I really do. I think the Spirit has a way of moving people into places where they need to be. Everything sort of works together, if not like clockwork, at least in a way that makes everything turn out okay in the long run—which may be another 14 billion years—who knows?
Now, that is not especially brilliant theology, but maybe it explains why I received a great book in the mail few months back—a book I did not order. I went online and purchased over a dozen books from a seminary bookstore in Chicago. This was all required reading for my three-week residency at Chicago Theological Seminary. Not all of the books were in stock, so they came dribbling in over several shipments. In the midst of these shipments I received a book called Traveling Mercies by a writer name Anne Lamott. It didn’t look familiar, and sure enough, when I checked it against my order, I discovered that I had not ordered the book.
However, after reading the back cover of the unordered book, I decided to pay the invoice and save it for a time when my reading schedule was a little less frantic. Okay, I’m pushing things a bit to claim the surprise arrival of this book on my doorstep was a part of the mysterious workings of the Spirit. Call it serendipity, or good luck, or happy coincidence. But the fact is, after reading all those dense books in preparation for my doctoral work in Chicago, this was exactly the book I needed to read. It was light, and airy, and refreshing, so I will happily file this little incident away into that mysterious gray area between the pre-determined universe of a micro-managing God, and pure dumb luck.
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Traveling Mercies is what my wife would call a chick-book. A chick-book is like a chick-movie. You know, a guy will take his wife or girlfriend to a chick-movie, but he has to make it clear he is being drug along to this thing against his will. I mean, even if he likes it, it would be a complete insult to his manhood for him to admit it. No blood, no car chases, no awe-inspiring explosions—it’s a chick movie. Think The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, or Fried Green Tomatoes—one of those. A lot of us guys secretly like them, but you’ll never hear us admit it publicly.
This book falls into that category. Anne Lamott is a single mother, and a recovering alcoholic, who suffered from bulimia for many years. She writes about her faith, her 8-year-old son who has never met his father, and the battles she has with a body that is pushing fifty in a world designed for women in their twenties. Nobody is going to mistake this woman’s writing for Tom Clancy. And while this is not a book I would have picked off the shelf at the bookstore where there are a couple of thousand other books competing for my attention, I couldn’t help but read it when it just sort of fell into my lap.
Again, serendipity, kismet, fate, happenstance? You make the call. But I was hooked after reading the first chapter, which is called “Lily Pads.” You see, people who write sermons are constantly on the lookout for material. And all we need is an image—the right image. Because all it takes is one great mental snapshot to trigger all the little synapses required for crafting a sermon. I want to read the first paragraph of Anne Lamott’s book, which provided just the mental picture I was looking for. I hope the image she creates resonates with you like it does with me:
My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather with a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear. When I look back on some of these early resting places—the boisterous home of the Catholics, the soft armchair of the Christian Science mom, adoption by ardent Jews—I can see how flimsy and indirect a path they made. Yet each step brought me closer to the verdant pad of faith on which I somehow stay afloat today.
That’s good writing. I really identify with that idea of jumping from lily pad to lily pad—from faith to faith—while trying to find the right spiritual home on which to make my stand. Many of you have shared your faith journeys with me, and this morning I want to talk about the way many of us have arrived where we are today—in this unique place we call University Congregational Church. The membership of this church comes from practically every imaginable Christian background. And depending on what lily pads we landed on over the course of our faith journeys, we have different ideas about why this place is so special.
Now, as I reflect on some of the stories you have told me about your faith journeys, I want to be very clear about one thing: I am not denigrating any other faith tradition. The people in this place are here not because we have gotten it right and everybody else has gotten it wrong. We are here because this place is the right fit for us. I have great respect for all the major religions of the world, and I think it is good that there are hundreds of denominations within the Christian faith. It allows us to learn from one another, and it provides a religious home for everybody.
Many members of this church were raised as Catholics. I have a great respect for the Catholic Church. It has a remarkable tradition, and some of the greatest theological scholarship continues to come from the Catholic Church. While it is the perfect home for many Christians, those who have found a home in this place tell me they felt oppressed and stifled by the Catholic Church of their youth. The word I have heard used more than any other is “guilt.” There was a lot of guilt placed upon the children, and as they grew older, they felt that the fear of hell was too much a component of that faith tradition.
I don’t know of anybody who jumped directly from the Catholic Church to University Congregational Church. For everybody I’ve talked to about this, there were several lily pads between there and here—often other churches, and even more often long periods of rejecting church altogether.
Those who were raised in the mainline Protestant churches—and that is the majority of people here—usually moved from congregation to congregation within the denomination in which they were raised—Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, Lutheran, and so on—and eventually sort of stumbled into this place. This is called “church shopping,” and that is considered a bad word in most denominations. My personal feeling is that faith is the most important element in a person’s life. I agree that people should become a church family—that the people of a congregation should love one another and take care of one another. But I refuse to believe that a person should spend his or her spiritual life in a place that isn’t their true spiritual home. It’s sort of like arranged marriages. I would not like it if from the day I was born my future wife was picked for me. And I do not think it is fair or wise for a person’s faith to be picked for them. The fact is, sometimes, congenital Catholics are born and raised in Presbyterian churches, and sometimes Congregationalists are born into fundamentalist families. That’s just the way it is. We should all explore our spiritual side, and plug in wherever it is we discover we truly belong—even if it means hopping from lily pad to lily pad until we find the right fit.
Another segment of our congregation was raised in no particular faith tradition. I fall into that group. When I was a child my parents took my brother and me to church, and we found it absolutely boring. We had to sit through these long and tedious sermons that were clearly written for people who were older than six or seven, and frankly, the adults were bored stiff too. It was excruciating. And then we sat through Sunday School classes led by teachers who didn’t seem to care much for children, and who were annoyed at any questions we asked.
We finally convinced our parents that church was not for us. But then, as a teenager, I fell in love with philosophy and religion. I started studying all the religions of the world. The only one I stayed away from was Christianity, and for a couple of reasons. First, I remembered that awful experience I had at church as a child. Second, all I knew of Christianity was the Bible thumping hell and damnation preachers I saw on television, and the kids in high school who were always asking me if I’d been saved.
I didn’t want any part of that, so I jumped from lily pad to lily pad, privately reading everything I could find on religion. Eventually I discovered there was an aspect of the Christian faith that I knew nothing about. And each of the mainline denominations had certain congregations who were a part of this more open faith. But they were hard to find, because they were quiet. In later years, I found great truth in the words of an English theologian whose great words I have quoted often: “Christianity is like a swimming pool—all the noise comes from the shallow end.”
I can’t imagine where I would be, spiritually, if not for Jesus. Jesus Christ is the center of my faith life. But my Christian faith continues to be nurtured and strengthened as I study the great texts of other religions.
A large percentage of the people who attend this church have made a huge leap, over a series of lily pads, winding up here on a journey that began in fundamentalism. This place is about as far as you can get from the fundamentalist church. And for me personally, I take the greatest pleasure in those who have found themselves trapped in fundamentalist churches, and who have managed to find this place. Now, I’m not going to make this an attack on fundamentalism. What is right for one person is not necessarily what is right for another. People who love this place feel smothered in a fundamentalist church. We reject the black and white answers that come from fundamental pulpits. On the other hand, I think we should all understand that many people want and need black and white answers to their faith questions. It is good that they have a place to worship together, where they are provided the answers they need to make it through life with a spiritual foundation.
But what a joy it is for me when a person who has felt oppressed in that atmosphere finds University Congregational Church. Those people appreciate this place more than anybody else. If I ever have doubts about what I am doing with my life, and what role this church is playing in the lives of others, all I have to do is go to the notes and letters that have been written to me by those who have found true liberation from the grasp of fundamentalism in this place.
Now let’s turn to those folks who were raised as Congregationalists. We have people here who were born and bred in the Congregational Church. But not all that many! The overwhelming majority of us came from other traditions. Sometimes I think how fortunate those people are who are dyed in the wool Congregationalists—who were raised with head and heart as equal partners in faith, and with the right to question anything they want to question. They were born on the right lily pad. But more often I think the rest of us are the really lucky ones, because, having jumped from pad to pad, it feels really good to finally land upon this place.
Still, even life-long Congregationalists have done their share of searching when it comes to faith. Congregationalism encourages the inner faith journey. The church serves as the vehicle for the journey, but the path is not pre-programmed. Each person in the congregation has his or her hands on the steering wheel. To push the analogy to the extreme, the preacher isn’t driving—the preacher is simply trying to provide fuel for the trip. (By the way, I truly resent it if some of you are thinking to yourselves, “Well, if Gary is providing the fuel, this place is running on hot air!” Come on—this is high-octane jet fuel!)
Another thing about the nature of a Congregational Church—it is self-governing. No outside authority is going to make the rules for a Congregational Church. That is our greatest strength, and our greatest weakness. Because while it is the very foundation of our tradition, it also means that I could stand up here this morning and tell all of you that we’re going to collect all of your jewelry, melt it down, fabricate a golden calf, and that calf will be the object of our worship in the future.
Yes, that is the very form of idolatry that upset God greatly in the Bible, and yes, if I did such a thing, you would (I hope) give me my walking papers. But the fact remains, I could do that. Or at least I could try to do that. There is no bishop, district supervisor, or other church authority that could come in here and say, “You can’t do that! You’re fired!” Only the congregation has that power.
So as you can imagine, there are undoubtedly times when certain congregations go off the beam a little bit. A charismatic preacher leads people down a questionable path. Maybe they become rabidly politically partisan—and it can be either to the left or to the right. Maybe their theology goes way off the beaten track. This doesn’t happen often, but the freedom of the Congregational pulpit means that one Congregational Church can be very different from the next one. So even our born and bred Congregationalists have jumped from pad to pad as they made their faith journeys, especially as they’ve moved from city to city, and state to state.
As I bring this morning’s sermon to a close, I think it is appropriate to say one more thing about this place—University Congregational Church. As I pointed out, a Congregational Church can take a variety of forms. Each one is unique. This place has become the ultimate lily pad for so many of us. It has become the place where we feel free to examine the whole spectrum of religion, free of guilt, knowing that we can ask any question, and that we are loved for who we are, and not because we adhere to the “right” religious ideals. The person who is responsible for that, more than anybody else, is Robert Meyers.
Immediately following today’s sermon, I will leave for Chicago to continue the work on my doctorate. Over the next four weeks, Bob will have the honor of leading you in worship from this pulpit. Obviously, it is a well-deserved honor, and we are all grateful to him for the vital role he has had in shaping this wonderful lily pad that we call our spiritual home.