16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 05/23/2010
I’d like to start by sharing the story of two women, a mother and a daughter, the first born in 1942 in Richmond, Indiana, and the second born in 1971 in Oakland, California.
To be born in 1942 in Indiana means that your life will span some interesting cultural changes. Our first protagonist – Virginia – was born at the start of World War II, as the middle child, and only girl, in a family of five that moved several times throughout her childhood around the Midwest. Despite this rather regular relocation, the social message was always the same for Virginia as she grew up.
For example, Protestant Christianity was the norm – so much so that the words “Christian” and “good” were synonyms, such as “that was very Christian of you”.
When you wanted your school team to win a football game, the rule was that you had to pray for both sides to do their best. Praying just for your team to win was what Catholics did, and it wasn’t okay with God.
And, just as an aside, you would never sign anything without reading it first, for fear that you would have inadvertently joined the Communist Party.
The 1950s culture that went with Protestantism in the Midwest prescribed a set of social norms for those growing up in that era, especially if you were a girl. Our central character Virginia grew up with the background message that she would be doing her job as a woman if she were to marry and to have children and to raise them in the Midwest. By the time she got to her small Midwestern Christian college in 1960, she was surrounded by women who were there to get their MRS degrees, whose main goal was to find a suitable man and settle down into a traditional marriage.
The trouble for Virginia was, this prescribed life-plan didn’t seem to fit her all that well, not down at the core of who she really was. Virginia was very popular in college – she dated quite a lot, joined a sorority and was homecoming queen, and she turned down 13 proposals of marriage by the time she graduated. She also had recurring dreams
in which she was walking down the aisle at her own wedding, and all the way down the aisle and through the ceremony she could never catch a glimpse of her husband-to-be’s face, and could never figure out who he was – even by the time that they were wed.
Fortunately for Virginia it was the mid-sixties when she graduated, and joining one of the first tours of Peace Corps volunteers seemed like just the right thing to do. After two years in the Philippines, she and countless others who were around her age and a little younger moved out to San Francisco. Virginia arrived there in the summer of 1967 to begin a graduate program at San Francisco State University.
Although San Francisco at that time was certainly the center of free drugs and free love, Virginia was not so much interested in those. What she was there for was the free – dom, the sense that she was in charge of her own life and anything was possible, no matter what
her gender, for example. And, in one of those twists of fate that the Great Mystery likes to throw at us rather hapless human beings, on Virginia’s first day of class the seat next to her was taken by a young, redheaded fella from Boston who had only just returned from his two-year Peace Corps run in India. They got to talking, married just four months later, and the rest, as they say, is history.
So now we have two young people who have left behind the scripted and conscripted lives that they were supposed to have, now in an environment that encouraged their individualism and their shared desire to live in the way that worked best for them. If they hadn’t by this time also shared a deep suspicion of religion, they would have found plenty of like-minded friends in the UU movement – in fact, as we know, many of those who did make it to our UU doors during that time brought their deep suspicion of religion right along with them.
And to me, it makes all the sense in the world how this couple then lived their lives. After being raised up with rules and with plans, walls and limits, “should be’s” and “ought to be’s”, they sidestepped that sort of talk and went about their own way. And in 1971, their first child, a daughter, was born.
How do two people who want to be free ending up raising their child, especially a girl child? Well, they raise her to feel free – free to be herself, no matter what others say. Virginia and her husband Larry weren’t entirely liberated from the strictures of their own upbringing, especially around gender issues – for example, they actually had a fairly traditional marriage when it came to the work they each did in the home and outside of it – but like parents of all times and ages they raised their kids in hopes that those kids would be liberated from those same strictures. So, for example:
Virginia’s daughter formed a close bond with her father, and it never once occurred to her as a child that she couldn’t be or do something just because she was a girl.
Virginia was in charge of the kids’ sporadic church-going, but she didn’t have any of her three babies baptized, because she wanted them to have the option to choose for themselves what religion they would be part of as adults.
And Virginia didn’t give many life lessons in the course of raising her oldest daughter, but one that she did give was this: You only get married when you find someone you don’t want to live without. Until you can honestly say, “My life would be measurably worse if this person wasn’t with me,” then you say no to marriage.
Those who know the ways of adolescent and adult children and their parents can probably guess a few of the choices that Virginia’s daughter ended up making over the course of her life.
As soon as she could, she moved away from California to Massachusetts, where the people were more uptight and the weather wasn’t always so good.
She did wait to marry until she couldn’t imagine her life without her partner – but she had only just turned 22 when she said I Do.
Perhaps most unexpected of all, at the age of 37, she was ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister.
The list of the ways in which this daughter – who, if you haven’t guessed yet, is me – the ways in which this daughter has shocked the bejesus out of her mother pretty much goes on, but the list is quite the opposite in tone from the list my mother used to shock her own mother, if you know what I mean. For myself and my generation, which is commonly called Generation X, the seeking of boundaries, structure and, yes, rules, has been a major theme.
And no less so in our UU churches.
For a number of years now the culture of our denomination as a whole has been turning. We see it in our congregations and in our ministerial meetings and at General Assembly. Here at Sugarloaf, interestingly, we’ve seen less of this change – probably because the
congregation began only 15 years ago and so was saturated from the start with the norms and values of this later generation of Unitarian Universalists.
Still, things are different at the denominational level, where change has come more slowly and has been fought against more vigorously. This change has mostly been reported as “we’re becoming more theist” – stated with either a sense of horror or of welcome relief -- but I’m not sure that “we’re becoming more theist” fully defines the change.
It is my belief that what we are seeing is not a change in our churches from some form of atheism to some form of theism. Rather, I think we are changing from a primary pursuit of more freedom, to a primary
pursuit of more structure. This change, from seeking freedom to seeking structure, is the hallmark of the generation known as X – particularly those members of Gen X who choose to get involved in church life.
I’m certainly not the first of UU ministers to talk about Generation X’s influence on our UU congregations, especially our ministry. There is an entire book out, called Reverend X, which talks about the impact of our newer, Generation X ministers on our denomination as a whole. Again, those who are nervous about this change often report Generation X ministers to be more theistic, Christian even, in marked contrast to the generally atheistic, I’m okay/you’re okay freewheeling theologies of our previous generation of ministers. But if you read the collection of essays, I think you’ll see that what we really are is more rule-oriented – which may be even worse, from the perspective of the agnostic baby boomer, I don’t know. What I do know is that
Generation X congregants and ministers don’t seek more freedom, because they take freedom as a given – whether that is an accurate perception or not. They do not want more freedom in churches because freedom has always been theirs for the taking. What they want in church is what they’ve had precious little of, growing up – structure. Someone pointing in one particular direction and saying, “Come this way.”
I was on the web once looking up the phone number of a colleague who had moved away. On this colleague’s new church’s website was a link to an essay for visitors and seekers to read, and for some reason I clicked on it. The essay – and I’m paraphrasing from memory here, so please forgive me -- talked about how wonderful it was to come to a UU church and to know that the person sitting next to you was just as messed up as you were, and the minister was just as messed up as you were, and wasn’t it great to come to a place where you knew no-one was going to pretend to better than you but where people really understood you in all your messy humanity.
In my opinion, this is just not Generation X talk. To understand me and my generation, it helps to know that I was born during the Nixon Administration. I was in high school when I watched the Iran/Contra hearings. The most obvious religious leaders of my youth were Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. I’ve never had the opportunity for the leadership of my country to pretend to be better than me. My entire life has been a series of my leaders not living up to much of any level of perfection or heroism, and often not even living up to a level of competence.
As a Gen Xer, I don’t want to go to church with people who are as messed up as I am. I want to go to church with folks who have gotten something figured out, something real and true and good, and who are willing to show me the way. And if I may be so bold, I think this is
what many of our Gen X congregants are looking for from our churches, and this is also what our up and coming Gen X ministers like me are trying to teach. I can absolutely see why that would be off-putting to the freedom-seeking generations who have populated our churches for so long. But looking for a foundation to stand on in a world that seems mostly like shifting ground is the work that my generation needs to do. Shifting the ground to start with was what my parents did.
The Pew Research Center has released a report on the generation behind mine, called the Millennials – so named because they came of age around the year 2000, if you can believe such a thing.
Millennials are marked by a couple of interesting new cultural traits. For one, they are incredibly comfortable with technology, and they connect and bond and interact with each other largely through current technology –through YouTube and social networking websites and the like, linking into the internet easily and nearly constantly.
This is an interesting trend for churches, which are often devoid of technology, to ponder. When a member of this Millennial generation makes it through our doors, what do they want? Do they want more of the technology that they are familiar with, or do they want to get away from it and do something different? Figuring that out is something our churches will need to do over the next few decades.
Beyond the tech stuff, Pew reports that Millennials tend to be quite loyal to their families, respectful of their elders, and hopeful for the future. They also tend to be not too tied to traditional religions but to be just as “spiritual,” to have just as many religious beliefs, as any other generation.
So imagine if you will the day when our UU congregations are filled with people who are not primarily looking for freedom from the moral strictures of their upbringings, nor are they looking for structure in a world that seems shaky and uncertain. When the Millennials come, they’ll be looking for a place to live out their need for community in a real time and place. They’ll be looking for a social setting where they can live out the responsibilities they feel towards their families and their elders. They’ll want a place where their diverse religious beliefs
are encouraged and can grow. And, they’ll want a place that talks about hope for the future, and ways in which we can work to bring about the better tomorrow that they know is coming.
I don’t know about you, but this sounds very Sugarloaf to me. We are a place where community matters. We are a place where we encourage each others’ spiritual growth. We take care of each other. We hope together for a brighter tomorrow. We here at SCUU are, in my opinion, well placed to meet the needs of the up and coming generation.
And that is important, because I don’t want us to spend all the time in the world getting too used to my generation’s presence in UUism and the questions that Gen Xers have to ask in order to be whole. What I hope for Unitarian Universalism is that we can gain the flexibility to be
okay when young people start arriving with different needs than the ones we’re used to meeting. It is my hope that we all, no matter what our generation, retain the flexibility to learn and the love it takes to listen and be patient when that ground under us does shift, as it always will. I believe we can be the denomination that meets the needs of the modern era, no matter what that modern era asks of us. That is my hope.