Friday, July 23, 2010

BEYOND 28 FLAVORS: Ice Cream Theology

Part of the joy—and perhaps the lure—of simple living is that you choose to manage only what lies within the scope of your actual capabilities and not to live under the pretext of unlimited assets or "purpose-greed"….. The result of that choice: A life that's possible, and a life that lasts. (Alban Weekly)

There are so many ways go when considering ice cream and theology/philosophy: Diversity, celebration, even sustainability, health, desire, and last but not least, sin.

So, you may be surprised at the one I thought most provocative and UU-worthy: Howard Johnson’s. It’s true, there are those among us right now who have never wandered into an actual Howard Johnson’s restaurant, sat down at the spinning stool by the counter with its three protruding aprons, and gazed with anxious confusion at the ever-growing list of possibilities: the 28 flavors, etched into a mirror that was graced by the trademark logo of Simple Simon and the pie man, the possible combinations of toppings, nuts, and whipped cream for sundaes or banana splits, the anticipation of sweet ecstasy as the sticky communion is fed to you by a smiling counter-girl. If you are among those, you missed an icon.

The similarities between HoJos and churches are many: lots of us went there once a week. Some never went at all. We knew the places by their distinctive architecture, which could merit another homily. The bright orange roofs were ubiquituous, especially along highways, as the mission of the enterprise, "Feeding the public on wheels," became enshrined. Families came together, seeking, and left, satisfied and content. Atop the roofs a dome, and above that, where a cross might be, a weathervane with Simple Simon and his generous pie man. Not that stealthily employed, still most of us were blissfully ignorant to them, were signature subtle messages: the colors that were to evoke a tropical vacation; the original restaurants shaped like colonial style homes, with fake dormers and colonial windows. You were both at home and on vacation, and you could find reliability, predictably, uniformity of service and product: the fried clams and the frankfurters cooked in butter were the holy sepluchres of our youth.

Most of us went out to eat rarely, so HoJos capitalized upon the feeling people had of celebration and sort of sacred time when they did go out by placing its franchises right at freeway exits (Exit 5 in NJ was the one I worked at) yet in reasonable proximity to local communities so that residents could go eat there and “feel” like they were on vacation. It worked, for most of the 20th century. There were hundreds of HoJos, the brand expanded to include motels (motor inns, as they were called) and packaged food.

There was one period during which almost all of the restaurants closed, WWII, when rationing kept people from driving and rationing of food prevented the chain from getting the needed ingredients.

HoJo restaurants started to fold at about the same time that McDonald’s reached mass popularity. People opted for convenience and speed. Families stopped doing things together and very few families were traditional. By the end of the 20th c almost all women worked outside the home. Time became a precious commodity. Electronic pleasures expanded, and people began to worship at the altar of TV, then the Internet, now handheld gadgets, little “churches” they can carry with them.

Those of us who spend our time thinking about these things are concerned.

HoJo’s died for many reasons, and the same will be the fate of the church in the United States unless we learn the lessons of history. We, the church (including all places of worship) are going to have to change as the world around us changes. This is anathema to some… I know. But it is true.

First, how is organized religion different than a Howard Johnsons, and specifically how are we, the UU faith, distinguished?

• Religion ought to have a core that is deeper and more lasting than serving people’s needs.

• Religion must challenge and not merely feed or soothe people.

• Religion asks of us to become co-creators: the core of this faith is found not in the worship experience (what is it today? Fish fry, oh, I don’t like that. Let’s get a new chef!) but in the mystical and somewhat indefinable process by which something happens when folks are thrown into a community and made to get along with others they would normally avoid; challenged to look at themselves and the meanings in their lives, asked to serve the wider community, given the daunting task of maintaining a physical plant that is the meeting ground of the faith. We are co-owners of the enterprise. And while there may be some satisfaction in the weekly dishing out of words and music, the real transformation lies much deeper.

I think we are going to have to get this clear, and remind one another of it, starting today, if not sooner. The church is not a restaurant. The mission of the church must never be to serve the people’s needs (desires) but to reach far beyond them. My goal is to help you create structures that empower you to see, over long time, by faithful attendance and by thoughtful attention, how much more meaning and depth and clarity and yes.. JOY!.. your life has when you are a part of a community.

Now.. Ben & Jerry. I served ice cream with Ben Cohen when he came to one of the first events opposing the Iraq war, Cindy Sheehan’s debut at Riverside Church.… B&J’s is not a church either, although it would be a synagogue if it were. But it is a radically innovative idea about how to do business in the kind of economy we are in. Raising up sustainability, Environmental awareness, activism (Greenpeace!) and even Stephen Colbert has made B&J’s very unpopular with some. I am guessing Glenn Beck doesn’t eat it. But the church could learn from them as well. Focus, mission, clarity, boldness and risk-taking… all challenges to today’s religious institutions that made the huge and perhaps near-fatal mistake of getting into the business of self-preservation.

What I am talking about is the church/synagogue gurus label the difference between functional and visionary churches.

Functional is what we have been, what the nay-sayers, the well-poisoners and the voices of doom and gloom want us to believe we still are. Functional churches are characterized by





Resistance to change

Nonreflective leadership.

Visionary Churches are characterized by:

Sacred purpose

Participatory culture

Meaningful engagement

Innovative disposition

Reflective leadership.

(above from Alban Weekly)

The core distinction of a visionary congregation is that it is always in pursuit of sacredness over consumerism, holism over segmentation, participation over passivity, innovation over routine, meaning over rote interactions, and reflection over inattention. (Alban)

That’s a lot to chew on, and it won’t go down smoothly. To be continued.