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Ministry – the giving of care to another, the giving of time and soul to what calls us – is one of the greatest privileges we can receive and one of the greatest gifts we can give. Ministry has been much on my mind of late, partly as we’ve been preparing for the commissioning of a team of wonderful lay ministers at First U and also because I’ve been spending some time with ministerial colleagues in and around Providence at meetings and worship services and demonstrations.
One of the most joyful occasions was a couple of weeks ago at the installation of the Rev. Elizabeth Chandler Felts as the new Senior Minister at Beneficent Church, United Church of Christ over on Weybosset St, almost directly across the river from here. Elizabeth is even newer than me here in Providence, having just arrived some months ago. She is a dynamic minister, passionate about social justice and here from a long tenure in San Francisco. She graduated a few years before me from Harvard Divinity School, and we took a lot of the same classes with many of the same professors. So we have a lot in common and have enjoyed getting to know each other and hanging out at some clergy and social justice events.
I was honored to be invited to speak at her installation service, offering a formal welcome to her and her ministry. And there were a lot of layers to this invitation, not only the obvious elements of rapport and camaraderie but ties going back centuries. As Congregationalist Minister Dennis Knight has written, “History is not just reminiscence, it is … a source of identity and self-understanding.” So it’s important for us to know that this church, First Unitarian, and Beneficent were once one congregation. They were riven in the 1740’s, a time when many church were splitting as their people embraced or rejected religious revivals that were sweeping through the colonies at that time. Along with this disagreement about traditional religious practice vs. the emotion and transcendence that people were encountering at revivals, another issue resurfaced, the old argument about creeds vs. deeds. The conflict was unhappy, legitimate, heartfelt and worthy of the commitment that resulted in two churches – and we all know how hard it is to start a new congregation with the heart and spirit to last, to last hundreds of years – two church, where there once was one.
Among the many wonky jokes ministers tell each other is this one: A faithless theologian died and woke to find himself in hell. Disappointed, but fascinated at where he found himself, he wandered around noting with interest who else was there. Suddenly, to his amazement, he recognized John Calvin walking along with Martin Luther, the two deeply devoted theologians, famous for their roles in the Protestant Reformation and their shared belief that salvation comes only through grace and faith. They believed deeds – even an endless stream of good deeds – have nothing to do with whether people are saved; deeds are worthless, even a distraction from what matters most which is simply faith and, if we’re lucky, some grace. Or, as some like to sum it up, in the debate of creed vs deeds, it’s creed that matters. So there they were, walking along in hell of all places. The theologian walked up to them and exclaimed, “John Calvin! Martin Luther! What are you two doing down here in hell!” The two looked at him glumly and said in unison: “It was deeds.” Get it? “It was deeds.” I know, hilarious, right?
But in fact, what is now a joke was anything but hundreds of years ago. It was utterly, sometimes even deadly, serious. And one of those times it mattered a lot was in the 1740’s when according to our archives, this church split because the very first minister, the Rev. Josiah Cotton of Boston, was preaching “damnable good works.”
“Damnable good works?” Okay, that sounds dramatic, but what does it mean? It all goes back to that issue of creed vs. deeds. Good works are deeds, what we would nowadays call “faith in action” or “living what we believe.” But what was Rev. Cotton preaching? Was he preaching, in agreement with Luther and Calvin, that good works were in fact damnable, that good works were an invalid path to salvation which actually required only – and exclusively – faith and grace to be earned? Or was it the other way around? Was he advocating for good works as a legitimate path to salvation? Was he more progressive, leaning into the belief of opponents to Calvinism like 16th c. theologian Jacobus Arminius – a theological forebear of ours – who believed that people have free will and the whole point of having free will is to use it in order to practice goodness in our lives?
In other words, who was it exactly that considered good works damnable: the preacher himself or the writer who set out the terms of the controversy? From the way it’s phrased in our archives, it’s impossible to tell. But I think the answer lies in this congregation’s next minister, some years after the split, in 1752. Our history tells us that Rev. John Bass came as the next settled minister “after having been admonished in Connecticut for not being a strictly orthodox Calvinist.” Well there it is. Those who left to start Beneficent were those who believed in creed over deeds. Those who stayed were those who embraced doing these “damnable good works” and whose next preacher reinforced that vision.
Over time the two congregations evolved into very different churches – but not entirely different. And the funny thing is that between our two congregations these days, and even between the two of us fairly new Elizabeths ministering now to these two churches, there’s now plenty of good works to go around. Beneficent is a congregation with deep spiritual courage and commitment, visionary capacity, generous heart, and healing faith; they could not be better named. In addition to centuries of good works, the scope of their works has also been tremendous, perhaps most of all in establishing Beneficent House on Chestnut St. in Providence as a response to so-called “urban renewal.” Beneficent House recently celebrated 50 years of providing safe, appealing, “below-market priced housing for low to moderate income persons of diverse backgrounds.” To which I say, ‘Day-um! Good work!’
I don’t believe Rev. Elizabeth could be better-settled than here with that very beloved community – not just Beneficent, and not just this gem of a city but also among the clergy here; we need and welcome her presence and gifts. They are the kind of gifts that clarify and magnify the efforts we all share to make this place and this life and this time more compassionate, more just, stronger and better not just for some but for all. These are the kind of gifts that call into question our 21st century version of faith vs. deeds – that common phrase “spiritual but not religious.”
These days a lot of people say they’re “spiritual but not religious.” People who track this trend sometimes identify such people as “nones” – not “nuns” as in Catholic sisters, brides of Christ nuns, but “n-o-n-e-s” meaning they tend to check the “none” box on surveys of religious identification; they feel they don’t have one. Though they mostly identify as spiritual, they do not identify as religious. I can’t define what that means to each person who identifies that way, but I know there are plenty of people in Unitarian Universalism – and even in congregations – who would also say they are spiritual but not religious. However, if we are active Unitarian Universalists in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, then I want to suggest some additional considerations. Spirituality is something we can experience completely alone, entirely on our own terms – on a solitary walk, in silent meditation, singing our own song, or reading theology. Religion is a shared experience – walking together, praying together, singing a new song together, enacting theology together.
At her installation, I told Elizabeth another reason I’m glad she’s here is that too often, parish ministry can be a spiritual experience. As her colleague and, I feel already her friend, I am glad and grateful for the ways her presence in this community is a religious, as well as a spiritual, one. Especially these days, we need her here and I need her here.
But it’s not just ministry that can be a merely “spiritual” experience. Life itself can tend that direction – in some wondrously direct and transcendent ways and also in agonizingly lonely and isolating ways – which is part of why religion came into being. Religious community magnifies what we experience. Sometimes that means a hard thing gets magnified, and this congregation has walked through many such painful times in its almost 300 years. But also often a good thing gets magnified. And these days when we Unitarian Universalists embrace both faith and deeds, to have our faith and deeds magnified is so important. It means we bring food and share rides, when some of us need that support – and eventually all of us need that support. It means we make a friend here, hold them when they are weeping here, exult with them when they are rejoicing here. It means we take risks here, knowing that our shared strength gives us the best chance of success and helps make our vulnerability and our aspiration meaningful. Religion, our shared faith and deeds, the conundrum of what shared faith even means since this is a non-creedal faith, so then we’re talking about shared faith as Buddhists and Humanists and Christians and Athiests and Jews and Pagans and Daoists and more – our shared faith that honors and believes in more than one sacred truth and the lifelong journey of discovery and living what we believe – that religion – secures us a sanctuary church. That religion wins us marriage equality. That religion lifts up trans rights and it animates and amplifies the music that rolls and breathes through the air here and the youth and children here and the elders here and the Women’s Alliance here and Chalice Circles here and and and….. I would never be done. There are literally countless instances, centuries of moments and movements, small and large, that have shaped lives and offered goodness back into the lives of people in this church and far beyond this church.
So what if we remind ourselves, each other, and those far beyond our walls that there is such a thing, after all, as spiritual AND religious. Personal experience and awareness blended with congregational connections and capacity. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It shouldn’t be one or the other. And at our best, it isn’t one or the other; it’s both intermingled and magnifying and inspiring, feeding us body and soul, heart and mind, wide open and full of love for each other, wide open also to that great sacred something that gives us breathtaking moments of awe at the presence and power and belonging of all things, including ourselves within it all.
Our lives, our congregations, our faiths, our deeds arc through time, weaving back and forth through each other and between each other, woven fine like bread or rope, joy and woe.Sometimes we catch glimpses of that weaving, of all that pulls us apart from each other and all that knits us back together. As we look to summer, to the light filling our days and nights, to warmth that heats our skin and warms our hearts, to open windows and breezes full of the smell of growing things and the night sounds of creatures and cities and seashores and sidewalks, let us open our spirits to all that can renew us. And let us be grateful that we have not only our spirits but also this faith, as expansive as we can make it, as respectful as we can possibly be, as strong as our own commitment, and as powerful as all our dreams, to call our home. And to call us home, at summer’s end. Amen.