The Seventy Percent Rule
On Easter Sunday some 40 years ago my maternal grandmother died. As I sat with my mother and my aunt in the pre-dawn hours of that morning reading from the Psalms, I agonized about going to church; actually about where to go to church. I was in deep need of two things: a place to share my grief; and to know that my grandmother was "OK." My grandmother was Southern Baptist by conviction and convenience. It was her conviction that church mattered in people’s lives, that having that connection for her children was a good thing. Human beings and church just went together. And the theology suited her. It was convenient as it was the closest church to her house, within walking distance. To the best of my knowledge she was never baptized. Having died in that state, her chosen church professed to believe that she was doomed. I refused to accept that judgment. I needed to know she was OK.
I decided to go the small Unitarian Church I had been visiting for some time. When I walked in and took a seat that morning, I hoped and prayed I had come to the right place. On that Easter Sunday, that small congregation delivered! They let me grieve in their midst while they cared – silently, with words, a gentle touch, a nod, a cup of tea at fellowship hour, maybe even a tear or two to match my own. And the minister’s sermon it was one of those morning’s when I swore the sermon was written just for me. His words spoke directly to my heart and the agonizing question I held there a question about what happens when we die wrapped in worry about teachings of punishment for those, like my grandmother, who did not in the eyes of the church – accept Jesus as her savior. The message I got from the preacher was more eloquently stated than this but simply put he said: I don’t believe in heaven or hell. Eternal life is possible because we live on in the lives of those our life has touched, by the difference we have made, by the love we share.
That congregation delivered. That morning I experienced my conversion to Unitarian Universalism. It was almost too good to be true, and certainly too good to pass up. A faith that could save both my grandmother and me on the same morning was surely worth my commitment, my investment. . . .
Many folks make a commitment to a congregation because they are, as I was years ago, looking for a community where we can be held and where we can from time to time – find insight and guidance for living, day by day, every day.
The desire for community, and those moments when a deep need is met, connects us. This is our common ground, ties that bind.
Why we come in to such a community as this and why we stay these can be two different things.
On that Easter years ago, when I came in, I got exactly what I needed. Exactly. And it was surely true that each Sunday thereafter would not be like that. I would not be blessed with 100% of what I wanted/needed every Sunday.
My reasons for staying had to do with acceptance, with deepening my spirit and opening my mind, and with opportunities to contribute and to make a difference in the lives of others. These were the things I received.
What I gave in return were baked goods for fellowship hour, teaching children in the religious education program and soon enough serving as the Director of Religious Education, volunteering to help with clean-up day, pitching in when we hung the greens at Christmas time, participating in the annual meeting, representing the congregation at district events.
The desire for community and all the reasons why we choose to stay connect us. This too is our common ground, more ties that bind.
Then things get complicated.
Things get complicated because there is a diversity of need, and of experience, among us each week.
Diversity in this sanctuary comes from the stuff of life. Someone found a job, or welcomed a child into the family. Someone else struggles with being unemployed, or grieves the death of a family member or friend. Someone needs a silent moment to center themselves, the tumult and noise of the week has yet to subside. Someone else bursts with joy at the successful completion of a project, or celebrates seeing a friend with an enthusiastic greeting unable to wait any longer to share some good news.
Diversity in this sanctuary also comes in our identities. There are the ones you might check off on a form racial identity, gender identity, age, education, relationship status . . . . . and more . . . like sexual orientation, gender expression, class identity, cultural identity. There are differing religious identities . . . Theist, Atheist, Agnostic, Humanist, Pagan, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Native American, Hindu, Muslim . . . . and a label much discussed of late those who identify as spiritual but not religious.
There are institutional religious labels like "churched and unchurched", or those with previous experience in religious communities and those with none. And there is the group researchers are calling NONES – N-O-N-E-S. As one NONE put it, "I like the ambiguity" of going without a label," she says. "I prefer to stress the importance of acting with compassion rather than choosing a predetermined system of beliefs." (USA Today 10/9/12)
Diversity in this sanctuary also comes through our doors by virtue of the religious or spiritual paths we choose and where we are in our journeys – which may be different than the religious label naming where we came from or the one we used for where we used to be.
So how do we collectively make room for and embrace the diversity that is us? The diversity that will be us as this congregation grows and changes?
On our web site right above a most beautiful photo of this congregation in front of the meetinghouse are these words:
We are First Parish of Sudbury, a diverse and welcoming community of spiritual seekers; we strive to learn together and support one another as we celebrate life’s important moments and serve the larger community.
In support of this mission I offer something that may seem a bit out of character in a Unitarian Universalist context a rule; the 70% rule.
Credit for this bit of wisdom goes to the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church in New York City. Riverside Church is a congregation of persons from many racial, ethnic and cultural and religious backgrounds. Rev. Forbes knew well the diversity of identities and of spiritual hopes and needs making up that congregation on any given Sunday. I imagine him in conversation with his god seeking guidance on how to help build and sustain a
community where, from time to time and sometimes often, individuals will be faced wit
h hope only partially realized or not at all, a need only slightly satisfied or nearly ignored.
Not to be satisfied by tolerance alone AND to strive for inclusion – these are principles by which we intend to live. How do we do that here? Follow the 70% rule. As applied to worship it might look something like this:
On a good Sunday, on a really good Sunday, each of us will get about 70% of what we most deeply need.
On an average Sunday, we will get something more like 50%.
And what happens to the rest the other 30% to 50%? We give it away. We give it away to those who need something different.
Maybe it will be the choir’s voices, a particular piece of music, the simplicity and beauty of the space, Moments for All Ages or a Milestone that touches the heart . . . perhaps the sermon will speak to your deep need as that Easter Sunday sermon of 40 years ago spoke to me – some combination or something else will be just what you need (or close enough) and the rest goes to someone else.
Exactly which 50%-70% will be for us on any given Sunday, we can’t know in advance. And which 30%-50% we’ll give away, we can’t really plan for. "I’ll take the choir’s singing and you get the prelude and the opening words" it doesn’t work like that. This is not about bargaining.
It’s about giving.
It’s about welcoming not just tolerating welcoming the diversity that is us and will be us. It is about sharing with each other. It is about including each other.
On that Easter Sunday 40 years ago I got exactly what I needed from that small congregation. Exactly. I don’t remember any other Sundays like that. Certainly I got my 50% worth often enough to keep me connected; to remind me how much my life was joined with the lives of the others in that community. And I got an amazing 70% worth from time to time; like the Sunday I was welcomed into membership with the congregation’s words of welcome, the minister’s words emphasizing the meaning of membership, the special celebration at Fellowship Hour, and personal expressions of genuine gladness from those present that Sunday.
Only that once was it everything.
Almost always it was, and is, enough.
Enough so my mind grows more curious.
Enough so my heart opens even more.
Enough so my spirit grows still deeper.
Enough to make a life of faith and purpose.
Enough to give away.
Simply and gladly, it was and is enough.