Tag Archives: Unitarian Universalism

My UU Debut

This past Sunday was a day of first’s for me.

To start, I preached my first sermon in a Unitarian Universalist church. Even with the reduced schedule for summer services and the usual summer attrition–not to mention it was a gorgeous 70 degree day and the Chicago Air and Water Show was taking place–there were still well over 100 people in attendance, about twice the number of people I am used to sharing with on any given Sunday. So the butterflies in my stomach were quite active before the service. Fortunately, I know a few people at the this church; so seeing their smiling faces along with my supportive husband Richard sitting in the crowd–plus practicing some very intentional meditative breathing–calmed my nerves well before I rose to speak.

It was also the first time I used readings other than biblical passages as the foundation of my sermon. These readings were “Risk” by Anais Nin and a quote from “Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian” by Paul Knitter. In case you’re wondering, these are the words:

From Anais Nin:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

And from Paul Knitter:

“Our religious self, like our cultural and social self…takes shape through an ongoing process…of forming a sense of self and then expanding or correcting that sense as we meet other selves. There is no such thing as a neatly defined, once-and-for-all identity.”

The final first was that this sermon is the first time I have verbalized–in a public setting, anyway–that I now find myself beginning to embrace Religious Humanism.

While I didn’t elaborate on this statement during the sermon, I should probably clarify for those reading this post (and especially for those who know me well and might be hyperventilating at this point) what I mean by that statement. The best way I can do that is to quote Jerome Nathanson: “…we believe there is room for a great many differing interpretations of everything that is, and still may be. It is that we believe the justification of any religious faith, including an ethical faith, is not to be found in its grounding (important as this is for each of us individually), but in its consequences.” That is, I don’t care what anyone’s religion saysespecially about concepts that cannot be proven–as much as I care about what that religion inspires us to do.

No one at Unity Temple UUC raised an eyebrow or walked out in protest when I shared my story. Nor did they do so when, during the Faith Sharing portion of the service, a gentleman “came out” about his journey from being raised with no religious foundation to over time finding meaning for his life in the teachings of Jesus. As a matter of fact, I saw several smiles and nods of familiarity throughout both portions of the service.

This ability to hold a wide variety of beliefs and practice in creative tension is what primarily attracts me to Unitarian Universalism. In fact I pointed out in my sermon that UU ism seems to operate using some of the principles of Chaos Theory where “strange attractors” define a basin of attraction, a container within which a system can experiment with new forms of itself without totally disappearing. And deep within these sometimes chaotic systems lies what physicist David Bohn calls “an implicate order” (from the “Emerging Church” by Bruce Sanguin).

My UU debut was very good for me. It challenged me to experiment with new forms of myself  in a safe environment without totally losing myself in the process. The process of preparing the sermon, delivering it and actually feeling it as I shared with the congregation gave me a new sense of freedom and peace about my continuing journey–as chaotic as it will be at times.

Now, I wonder what would happen if more of our communities became “basins of attraction” where we could experiement with new forms of ourselves? I wonder what would happen if we not only allowed, but actually encouraged people in our faith communities to “embrace the chaos” that comes with growth and change in all areas of our lives?

Just something to consider…

The Illusion of Inclusion

“All are welcome!” “Wherever you are on your journey, you are welcome here!” “Open and affirming!” “Come as you are, believing as you do!”

These are just a few of the phrases communities of faith use in their (mostly) sincere attempts to welcome diverse groups of people to their communities. I say “mostly” because I think it is fair to say some congregations use these phrases primarily as marketing tools. That is, facing declining numbers, some conservative and liberal religious groups are tweaking not only their orders of worship, music, “clerical drag” and programming; they are also tweaking their advertising techniques to boost attendance numbers and financial support. I understand this desire for survival. Still, the challenge is, after people arrive–if they haven’t given up on religion altogether already–they eventually learn there is often some “fine print” attached to those messages. In other words, there are some exclusions in the inclusive message.

For example, one friend of mine started attending a large non-denominational Christian church that proclaimed everyone without exception was welcome there. This group had amazing music and programming as well as positive and uplifting messages. There was a lot of Jesus–just without all that annoying discipleship business–well, with perhaps the exception of financial discipleship, that is. He attended a membership class and liked what he heard. Then my friend spoke with the facilitator after the class. He told the facilitator he is gay and asked if that would be a problem.

The facilitator of the class was obviously flustered and said, “Well, yes. I mean, you can come here and all, but you would have to commit to celibacy or repent and convert to heterosexuality before you could be a member.” Then, to add insult to injury, he placed his hand on my friend’s shoulder and said, “I don’t have a problem with homosexuals personally. See? If I did, I wouldn’t be touching you like this.” I’ve lost touch with this friend over the past few years; so I don’t know if he ever darkened the door of any church ever again. I can’t say I would blame him if he didn’t.

Now, not all churches that claim to be inclusive and welcoming are like the one I’ve described here. And sexual orientation is just one example of the “fine print” in some welcoming congregations. Another example is women (“Of course you can serve–just not in leadership that includes supervising or teaching men.”).  I’m sure you can think of other examples, too. At the same time, there are many, many communities of faith that strive to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible. I know because I am honored to be the pastor of one such group.

The challenge remains, however, that there is always fine print–either spoken or implied. You could call this fine print “boundaries,” too. Some are healthy; some are not.

I’ll use the congregation I serve as an example. In our Inquirer’s classes I now identify as a Unitarian Universalist Christian at this point in my life journey. I go on to explain that while this is how I identify, no one is required to share that identification in order to be a member of our church. People can be as creedal, conservative, born again, “washed in the blood of the Lamb” as they choose–or not. At the same time, they aren’t going to hear creedal, conservative, born again, “washed in the blood of the Lamb” music in our worship services or that theology in my reflections. So, if they absolutely need to hear affirmations of things like virgin birth, bodily resurrection, Jesus as God, blood atonement, hell, the bible as literal word of God and the like, they may not be comfortable at our church.

Again, I emphasize everyone is welcome at Holy Covenant and–like our Unitarian Universalist sisters and brothers–we affirm every person’s free and responsible search for truth. Yet I can see how a moderate to conservative Trinitarian Christian (straight or gay) could feel excluded at our church. And people who aren’t “Jesus-centric” probably wouldn’t be too comfortable with our focus on the teachings of Jesus and other biblical teachings, either. In other words, our church has “fine print,” too. And while I believe our fine print represents some healthy boundaries for what people can expect to see and hear at our church, others might see us as “exclusive.”

So the more I consider what I call “the illusion of inclusion,” the more I think some of us in “church world” stress out far too much over who we’re not, rather than celebrating–and not just affirming–the wonderful parts of who we are. Every religious community has a culture of its own; and while every community of faith has room for healthy growth, challenge and change, rarely does everything about those communities need an overhaul. Besides, when we try too hard to be something we’re not in any area of our lives, we can cause more hurt and pain to others and ourselves than any good we hoped to accomplish.

In the end, perhaps the best we can do is take the advice of St. Francis de Sales who was quoted as saying, “Be who you are and be that well.” That “who” may very well evolve and change over time, too. Besides, organisms (including churches and religions) that don’t evolve usually die anyway. Still, healthy change (boundary shifting)–either individual or communal–cannot be forced, even with the best of intentions and advertising campaigns. Healthy change takes time, “prodding” from the Divine within each of us, and our willingness to listen to and act upon that prodding.

After all, we cannot be all things to all people. So, “be who you are and be that well.”

And be at peace.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

This week I stated reading Paul Rasor’s “Faith Without Certainity: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century.” Although I have only finished the somewhat lengthy introduction and am now about 1/4 way through chapter one, I can already say this book is challenging me in positive ways.

First, I thoroughly enjoy Rasor’s definitions of religion and theology. He states: “The term theology is often associated with arcane and academic or technical concepts that focus on abstract doctrines. But the purpose of theology is really quite simple. If religion is about the large-scale world pictures that orient us in the universe and help give our lives meaning and purpose, then theology is about examining those worldviews and the assumptions that go into them.”

What I like most about these definitions is they recognize the fact that everyone is a theologian at one time or another–including people who either question–or who do not believe in the existence of–any representation of the divine. That is, we all have questions about things like how life works, why life isn’t always fair, the ultimate meaning of life, and if there is anything beyond our current existence. One way of looking at religion then is our viewpoints represent those large-scale world pictures; and when we examine those pictures, we are doing theology. As Rasor reminds us, “our struggle and our outrage are always grounded somewhere.” And I would add, whether that grounding is in what some of us call “God” or not. So for me, identifying that grounding is “doing theology.”

Another quote from Rasor I like is: “Theology is not something we do just with our heads. We must also use our hearts and guts, as well as our hands and feet.” To me, that means theology is something we think about, feel, and is reflected in the words and actions of our lives.

Now, an integrity (or wholeness) of thought, feeling, and action is a “trinity” in which I can believe.

So how does my appreciation of Rasor’s viewpoints regarding religion and theology relate to the title of this post, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do?”

Well, if–as Rasor asserts–“liberal theology is characterized by the belief that human religiousness should be understood from the perspective of modern knowledge and experience”–and if we acknowledge that our knowledge and experiences evolve and change over time, it follows that many of us are going face the prospect of “breaking up” with some of our most cherished and deeply-held beliefs at one time or another in our lives.

And as Neil Sedaka reminds us, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.”

For some, these changes involve breaking up with the idea of a supernatural being who controls every detail of our existence and has a specific plan for every person who ever has, and who ever will, live. Some  have broken up with the ideas of Jesus being literally God Incarnate, as well as literal intepretations of heaven, hell, virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, the rapture and second coming of Jesus, and an inerrant bible.

Some people are even breaking up with the idea of worshipping God as we often do now. By that comment, I mean there are people who are questioning not so much the existence of mystery that is beyond our comprehension, but why we continue to relate to that mystery much like our ancient ancestors did: offering thanks often out of fear of punishment or to gain favor not only in this life, but hopefully in the afterlife as well. I mean, we may not actually believe a lot of what we’re saying in these worship services; but hey, it can’t hurt to hedge our bets, can it?

Now before anyone thinks I am poking fun at certain beliefs, let me be clear that I respect all peaceful paths to truth and understanding. So if the beliefs I mentioned above are part of your path, blessed be–seriously. At the same time, these same beliefs are no longer useful for many people–including me. Rasor points out that “what we long for is a theology that both makes sense and feels right. Until we find this, we haven’t finished our naming process. And when we do finally get the intellectual and spiritual dimensions in sync, our theology becomes not just a label but a resource, a grounding for spiritual practice, for social critique, even for healing.”

So know that if you are in the process of a religious/theological break up, you are not alone. And while break ups are often a painful process, there is often hope somewhere deep in the midst of that pain just waiting to be born. Finally, if you will allow me one more musical reference, from the group “Shinedown:”

“Sometimes good-bye is a second chance.”