From “Time Magazine” —a great story about Not Church

The online story is available only to subscribers this week. But here’s a copy from Diana Butler Bass.

4 The Rise Of The Nones — Monday, Mar. 12, 2012
By AMY SULLIVAN
http://www.time.com/time/letters/email_letter.html

In the tiny coastal town of La Misin on Mexico’s Baja peninsula, dozens of American
expats meet for a Sunday gathering they call Not Church. Many of them long ago
gave up on traditional religious institutions. But they function as a
congregation often does–engaging one another in spiritual conversation and
prayer, delivering food when someone is sick and working together to serve the
poor.

On a recent Sunday the group, which began as a monthly discussion about a year
ago, featured a sunny-haired ordained Presbyterian named Erin Dunigan delivering
a sermon about tomatoes and God’s call to Samuel. (Organized religion, she told
them, can be like supermarket tomatoes–flavorless and tough. That isn’t a
reason to give up on religion, or tomatoes, but instead to find a fresh, local
version worth cultivating.) “It was beautiful,” Dunigan says. “The people who
don’t want anything to do with the church or religion were the people who were
leading everyone else in the service.”

These expats provide an example of a very American trend: turning away from
organized religion and yet seeking rich if unorthodox ways to build spiritual
lives. The fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. is the category of people
who say they have no religious affiliation. Sometimes called “the nones” by
social scientists, their numbers have more than doubled since 1990; major
surveys put them at 16% of the population. But as the Not Church community
shows, many of those who have given up on organized religion have not given up
on faith. Only 4% of Americans identify as atheist or agnostic.

Diana Butler Bass’s new book Christianity After Religion notes that the past
decade has been particularly challenging for organized religion in the U.S.,
from the Catholic sex-abuse scandal to the entanglement of faith in heated
political campaigns–resulting in a “sort of ‘participation crash.'” Nearly
every religious tradition has suffered. Even some megachurches, which pride
themselves on marketing to people turned off by traditional religion, have
floundered.

But the hunger for spiritual connection and community hasn’t gone away. A 2009
survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life asked respondents whether they
believed in God, how often they prayed and whether they were affiliated with a
particular religion; it found that “40% of the unaffiliated people were fairly
religious,” says director Luis Lugo. “Many said they were still hoping to
eventually find the right religious home.”

That resonates with Dunigan, 40, who acts as a sort of unofficial chaplain for
the Not Church members. “My sense is that for most, they’re not rejecting God,”
she says. “They’re rejecting organized religion as being rigid and dogmatic.”

The U.S. has a long tradition of producing spiritual innovators and
entrepreneurs. Today they’re the organizers in the emergent-church movement, an
effort by younger Christian leaders (there’s a similar movement among Jews) to
take religion away from musty pews and fierce theological fights by creating
small worship communities that often meet in members’ homes.

For traditional religious institutions, the challenge is how to adapt to this
trend rather than fight it.

Dunigan has the support of the Presbyterian Church, which agreed to ordain her
as an “evangelist,” a designation rarely used these days for clergy serving
Americans. That ordination is already affecting the views of her ad hoc
congregation. Says Dunigan: “It allows the folks that I spend time with to say,
‘If organized religion is willing to try something new, maybe I should give
organized religion a chance.'”

on cracks, edge, and light

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

When I decided to quit my corporate job to attend seminary I also decided to spend the summer before I started school working in the Dominican Republic. I worked with an organization that was just getting started in the small mountain town of Jarabacoa.

It was a wonderful experience—and definitely a crash course in immersion for my up to that point classroom only Spanish knowledge.

Jarabacoa is a small town, with dirt roads, not unlike La Mision. As I got to know my way around I began to, each afternoon after work, go for a jog throughout the town.

Suffice it to say that this was not standard behavior amongst the local Dominicans, but after a few weeks of odd looks, I began to get invited, in the midst of my run, for coffee. I tried to politely explain that no, I couldn’t really stop, I had to keep running. Coffee in the DR is more like a shot of espresso with about a cup of sugar, so it may have helped the running, actually.

One afternoon I happened to be running past a primary school as it let out for the day. The children came flooding out onto the dirt road as I was running past. Some of them joined in with me, running along side me, huge smiles on their faces. It was beautiful, really.

It could have been a picture-perfect photo shoot for some sort of ‘save the children’ type organization, with Sally Struthers narrating as the camera rolled, me running, flanked by children, all of us smiling.

And that is when I saw it. The finger.

One of the boys, running along side me, with a huge smile on his face, was also, I realized, holding up his hand, giving me the finger.

So much for the photo shoot.

There is never a dull moment, living in another culture, is there? There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

Recently I was reading a daily meditation by one of my favorite authors, catholic priest Richard Rohr. To be honest, I continue to be amazed at the abundant openness in his teachings, and how he continues to take the walls of doctrine and belief and push them out further, and further, and further, until there is this expansive spaciousness in the lessons that he shares. It is a good reminder to me that this welcoming inclusiveness has a place, even in the midst of the most organized of religion.

In this daily meditation Father Rohr quoted the Leonard Cohen song, ‘anthem.’ You may know it. The refrain goes like this:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

Richard Rohr goes on to say that “there is simply a crack in everything and so we should not be surprised when it shows itself in us or in everything else.

But it can be so easy to want to fix the crack, can’t it? To get out the glue, or the duct tape, and patch it up as quickly as possible, before it cracks any further. Or, better yet, avoid the cracks altogether, keeping life safe, out of harm’s way, far from the danger of that which might threaten it.

Working in the garden hardly seems like it would be a dangerous activity, but yesterday a run-in with a fairly thick, coiled, unknown snake has made me start to wonder. To be honest, I didn’t really want to get close enough to identify tail or head markings.

One of the things I love about working in the yard is the constant learning—though I’d prefer it to be about vegetables than reptiles.

Amongst a certain contingent of somewhat geeky gardeners there is a term that is growing in recognition. It’s called permaculture. Permaculture, is a way of looking at the system as a whole, rather than each individual part. Within permaculture there is a concept called edge.

Edge is where two systems meet. So, for instance, here along the shoreline we are in a place of edge, where the sea and the beach meet. Edge might be where a forest touches a field. Edge is where the energy is in a system. If you want to increase the vitality and fertility, increasing edge is one way of doing that.

For example, if you were to have a pond in your garden, rather than create the pond as a circle, if you were to make its shoreline all squiggly, that, in turn, increases edge, which, in turn, increases the amount of life that can thrive and benefit from that pond.

So, if you, as a gardener, want to increase the yield of your garden, you might want to figure out ways to increase the amount of edge. Edge is where the action is. Edge, according to wikipedia, is a place with an intense area of productivity and useful connections.

Edge is a space of encounter. A space of engagement.

We are, at this time of year, in just such a season of edge—the edge between the winter and summer that is spring. With the time change last night we have a tangible sense of the lengthening of the days. In the Christian calendar the name given to this season is Lent. Not lint that you find in your pocket, but Lent. The word literally means spring, and having to do with the lengthening of the days.

Lent is the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter, often seen as a time of giving up something—whether chocolate or beer or cake or thin mint girl scout cookies.

Because of the focus on abstaining, Lent, and thus those who practice it, can be seen as a rather killjoy of a time—especially coming from the craziness of Carnival or Fat Tuesday, the night before the time of ‘fasting’ begins.

But, in a sense, Lent can also be seen as a time of creating space, an allowing of some emptiness, of making room for that from which the new life of spring will blossom.

The season of Lent is, itself, an edge, between the now and the not yet.

The thing is, we all who are here, we are also living, in a sense, in a place of edge. Living in a country that is not our own, but one that we have chosen. Living physically in a place where multiple cultures have the opportunity to encounter one another.

Sure, it can be a place of challenge—navigating the language, assumptions, and the way things are done. Who hasn’t been thrown off by the nuance between ahora, now, and ahorita, a now that is, how do we put it, a bit less punctual than we might be likely to assume.

At times life here can be like running along that dirt road side by side with those Dominican children, smiling, basking in the beauty and the joy of it all. And, I think, if we are honest, at times it can be a bit like turning and seeing that one boy, middle finger held all in the air.

That is part of the territory, in life along the edge. It’s part of the risk. It is precisely this encounter with differentness, with otherness, that brings the challenge and the risk, but also gives the vitality, and the life.

We are, most of us, much too familiar with the fear such living in the midst of edge can bring.

Just last weekend, in talking with the wonderful surgeon who operated on Jimmy’s heart to save his life, I was asked again, ‘But is Baja safe?’

This surgeon had visited Baja many times when he was younger, to surf, explore the tidepools near the bufadora, and eat lobster at puerto nuevo. He had a first hand knowledge of this place. But because of what he’s heard in the news, he wondered, is it safe?

We’ve all heard it, been asked it, haven’t we? That ubiquitous ‘is it safe?’

And, to be honest, normally I try to do my best to assure people that, of course it is, that it is just the media sensationalizing, not making distinctions on particular locations as if Chicago’s crime would make you not want to go to Portland.

I try to explain to them, as I’m guessing many of us do, that this fear is actually having a direct impact on the life and well being of so many of us, including our own friends, and ourselves, who depend on the income of tourism for renting horses or renting houses.

But it’s also got me thinking about a line from the children’s book, and movie, The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe. In this book four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy enter through a wardrobe into the magical world of Narnia. When they arrive they meet a couple of beavers—Mr. And Mrs. Beaver, who begin to tell them about the great king of Narnia, Aslan, the Lion. Talk of a lion starts to make the children somewhat uncomfortable. Finally one of them asks, “Um, Mr. Beaver, this lion, Aslan, is he, is he quite safe?” To which Mr. Beaver responds, ‘Safe?! Who said anything about safe? Of course he’s not safe. But he is good.”

Is living in this place safe? I’ve begun to wonder if my answer shouldn’t be “of course it isn’t safe.”

Who knows how you will be transformed?
Who knows how you will be changed?
Who knows what food you will begin to eat, what friends you will make, what decisions you will begin to make differently?

We who are living during this season of edge, in this place of edge, live and move and have our very being at the intersection of something far greater than ourselves.

Of course it isn’t safe—if you let it, it might just turn your whole world upside down.

Of course it isn’t safe. But it is good.

So go on,

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.