Category Archives: UU sermons

The Trip of a Lifetime

I was re-reading a sermon I gave at Neshoba about three and a half years ago, and realized I had never posted it here on my blog.  So for what it’s worth…

The Trip of a Lifetime

One time, years ago, I decided to spend part of my spring break visiting a good friend who had moved to Colorado, about ½ way between Denver and Boulder.  I had never been to that part of the country and was excited about seeing what I had heard was beautiful scenery.  I was anxious to see as much as I could in the week that I had, and figured the best way to do that would be to travel by train.  To get from DC, where I lived at the time, to Denver, I had to change trains in Chicago.  I had driven from the East Coast to the mid-west many times growing up – my father’s family was in Wisconsin and Minnesota – so that part of the trip was not the motivating factor.  But I had not been in any of the states between the Mississippi River and California, so was really looking forward to watching out the train window as the Great Plains rushed past and the Rocky Mountains approached.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Revisiting an old post

I first posted this 2 years ago… it was a sermon I gave at Neshoba UU Church and was one of my first blog posts.  A comment on another blogger’s site made me think of it.  I have added a bit of information and tweaked a few other details, but I thought I would share it again for those who are new visitors to The Spirit Within.

I have a Jewish friend who forwards emails to me on a regular basis. Occasionally, her emails make reference to God, and I have noticed that she spells His name G – d. From what I have read, observant Jews follow this practice out of reverence for the Almighty.  One reason it is done is to avoid desecrating His name by crumpling, tearing, or otherwise destroying the paper on which it is written.  The other reason has to do with the belief that we as humans are not able to fully understand Him, and so we should not use his full name. In this interpretation, the dash represents all that they don’t know, can’t know, about their god. Think of all the various names that different faiths and different people use for God. Yahweh, Allah, Father, Almighty, Spirit… the list is too long to name. To me, the dash represents the fact that we all have different understandings, different interpretations of who or what God is. The differences between us – the important distinctions – are all in the dash.

Even within each of us, there can be different, sometimes conflicting understandings of the idea of God. There can be the God of our childhood – the one that our parents believed in and taught us to believe in. For some, that was a vengeful god, keeping a tally of our sins for the day when we would be judged. For others, it was a God of forgiveness, full of love for His children.

Click on image for source

And yet others might remember a God that was 3 in one – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I grew up being instilled with the concept of a trinity and with an image of God, the Father, as an old man sitting in the sky. Even as a young person, I just couldn’t accept that as plausible. It seemed too far-fetched to be real, so for a long time, I was very uncomfortable with the whole idea.

Whether or not we were raised with a concept of God, as an adult, we might have a whole different understanding of the Holy. Individually, we may each have different names for the Divine. One may profess faith in a living, loving God, another in a Holy Being that transcends life; still others, in the Spirit of Life that we sing about each Sunday, or even in a Goddess of the earth… Some may disavow the idea of God all together. However we conceptualize God, if we do at all, it is our own understanding that is important. As Thomas Jefferson said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

I still have some hesitation over the term God. It seems to carry a connotation that I am uneasy with. On the other hand, I have come to appreciate the concept, borrowed from many 12-step programs, of a “Higher Power” or a “god of my own understanding”. I like the phrase “Higher Power” – it provides another perception of the Holy, the idea that the word G – d doesn’t have to refer to a being at all – it can mean the power of love in a community, the life force that joins us together, or – if you think of the dash as standing for “OO” – the GOOD in each other.

So for me, the dash in the word G – d represents the divine, the spirit, the spark that resides within me – within all of us. I do believe that there is something holy in all of us that only gets bigger when we give it away. Your spark, your love, your spirit only grows stronger when you share it with others. So how to we recognize the divine in ourselves? In each other?

Consider this poem by Linda Ellis.

The Dash 

I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning…to the end.
He noted that first came the date of her birth
And spoke of the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years.
For that dash represents all the time
That she spent alive on earth…
And now only those who loved her
Know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not, how much we own;
The cars….the house…the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.
So think about this long and hard…
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
That can still be rearranged.
If we could just slow down enough
To consider what’s true and real,
and always try to understand
the way other people feel.
And be less quick to anger,
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we’ve never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect,
And more often wear a smile…
Remembering that this special dash
Might only last a little while.
So, when your eulogy is being read
With your life’s actions to rehash…
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spend your dash?
 

Examining how we spend our dash can help us find that spark. Do we fill it with things? With people? With money? With service? Is it about whom we love, or what we have, or even how we worship? Forrest Church, a UU minister who is widely quoted, says, “Religion is the human response to being alive and having to die.” So is religion how we should fill our dash? Personally, I tend to resist the word “Religion” – much as I used to resist the word God. It brings back memories of childhood and the hypocrisy I felt when attending church. A better word for me is Spirituality, so perhaps I can paraphrase Reverend Church by saying that Spirituality is the human response to life and death. Spirituality is what should fill our dash.

But what exactly is Spirituality? For some, it is about a belief in a supreme being – in G – d. For others, it is less about “god” and more about the Spirit within themselves. Spirituality, our dash, is a path we are all on, a journey towards truth. Each path is a personal one and as truth evolves, the path can change. This spiritual journey is a search for one’s core beliefs and for ways to demostrate those beliefs through actions. It is also a recognition of those moments that speak to us on a level sometimes beyond description.

Spirituality is about noticing the small things – the soft skin of a newborn baby, the smell of the salt air by the beach, the colors of a sunset flooding the horizon. It is also about noticing the big things.

When I was in high school, I spent many weekend hours with my dad on the farm he owned about an hour outside of town. One Saturday, the work that needed to be done took longer than he expected and we were still there after dark. As my dad continued to work in the barn, I climbed up onto the roof of our station wagon and laid back, staring up at the sky. As the light faded away, stars began to emerge, first the biggest and brightest, then the smaller and fainter. Out there in the country, far from the lights of the city, the sky was darker than I had ever seen. I tried to count the stars and quickly realized there were many more than I could even begin to number. When it seemed as if the sky couldn’t get any darker and the stars any more numerous, a cloud of dust emerged across the sky – the Milky Way! I had heard of it, but being a city girl had never actually seen it. I think that was my first, and possibly most vivid, spiritual moment.

I realized then that there was something out there, larger than each of us, larger than all of us. I feel that we are like the stars scattered across the sky. Some are bigger and brighter, some smaller and fainter, but each one adds to the beauty and together we create moments beyond description. These moments are the stepping stones on our journey, but we still have to fill the space in between.

For me, filling my dash is about finding who I am and examining how I live my life – it is about finding the spirit within myself, and how I share that spirit with others. Lois W., co-founder of Al-Anon, defines Spirituality as “living a life that has deeper meaning than the search for daily necessities.” I strive to live a spiritual life, a life that has meaning – that will leave an imprint on those whose lives I touch.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of attending a celebration for a woman who was retiring from my school after 40 years of work. It coincided with her 75th birthday, so the event was truly a celebration of her life. Current and former colleagues, students and administrators spoke fondly of the dedication she had shown the school and the love they felt for her. They told funny stories about things that had happened over the years. They spoke of her faith and her spunk, of her laughter and her hugs. We were surprised to learn that she had taken up the piano in her 60’s. And that she planned to travel now that she was retired. And you might be surprised to learn that she was not a teacher, not an administrator, not even an office staff member. She was on the housekeeping staff – she spent 40 years helping to set up for receptions, cleaning up afterwards, keeping the halls and the classrooms neat and tidy, and generally taking care of all those who passed through them. But through it all, her life – her dash – touched many people. And how wonderful it was for her to hear that celebrated while she was still there to receive that gift.

I have been teaching for 26 years, and can only hope that I have touched a few students and colleagues along the way. I counted up the other day – give or take a few dozen, I have taught almost 1600 students. One of those former students was at the celebration for this woman, and how heartwarming it was to have her come over to me to give me a hug and let me know she had fond memories of my class. If there is someone in your life whose dash has touched you in some way, I hope you can find a way to say thank you, to let them know that their life had an impact on you. And perhaps one day, someone will come up to you and say thanks. Thanks for being an inspiration. Thanks for being a role model. Thanks for helping me through a tough time. Thanks for being there when I needed a friend. Thanks for being you.

Finding Faith Through Doubt

This is a sermon I gave at my church, Neshoba Unitarian Universalist, on Sunday, June 11.

Not long ago, I heard some good advice from a friend.  She was referencing Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, in which the author tells the story of her 10 year-old brother who had to write a report for school on the Birds of North America.  The young boy had been given 3 months in which to complete this assignment, but in the way of 10-year olds (and some 20 & 30 year olds and even some 40 year olds), he had put it off until the last possible moment.

As he faced a looming deadline, he began to panic and crawled under the kitchen table, crying that there was no way he could do this, it was too much.  He was completely overwhelmed by the prospect of having to write this report on the Birds of North America.  His father, who must have been a wise man, crawled under there with him and said it will all be OK.  You can do this.  You just have to take it one bird at a time.  Write the report bird by bird.

What great advice for all of us.  There are certainly days when I feel like crawling under the kitchen table because my to-do list seems impossibly long.  Or my workload seems extraordinarily complicated.  Or I have agreed to give a sermon at church and have no idea what to write.  I just need to remember that it will all be OK.  I can do this.  I just have to take it bird by bird.

I don’t have to write the whole sermon at once.  I just need to write the first paragraph.  Not even the first paragraph – just the first sentence.  Once I do that, then it will all start to flow.

Since I couldn’t even think of a first sentence when I sat down to write, I decided I would begin with a few jokes.  Break the ice, so to speak!  A quick Google search yielded plenty of results.  You may have heard these before, but as in most jokes, the humor is in the grain of truth that they contain!

So in the style of Jeff Foxworthy, who tells the redneck jokes, I have found several ways to tell if you are a UU.  Some of them I adapted to be relevant to us here at Neshoba.

You might be a UU if …

* you are unsure about the gender of God.

* you have ever been in an argument over whether or not breast milk is vegan.

* you dress for a formal evening out by wearing a tie-dye t-shirt and Birkenstocks (and your wife thinks you look great!)

* you get Newt Gingrich confused with the Grinch who Stole Christmas.

* the money you spent at Christmas last year on gifts for the Bond Homes was more than you spent on your mother.

* You think a Holy Day of Obligation means it is your turn to bring flowers.

And finally, you might be a UU if…

* you think the Holy Trinity is “reduce, reuse and recycle.”

I found another UU joke with a grain of truth:

To have a few doubts is normal.

To have many doubts is a crisis of faith.

To have constant doubts is a conversion to Unitarian Universalism

Doubt.  Now there’s a topic I can get behind!  My spiritual journey has been full of doubt – but according to Jose Bergamin Gutierrez, Spanish writer and poet, that can be a good thing.  He wrote “A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.” Another poet had similar feelings about doubt.  In his epic poem In Memoriam, Alfred Lord Tennyson penned this couplet:

There lives more faith in honest doubt,

Believe me, than in half the creeds.

Doubt comes very easily to me – probably to most people.  Faith takes more practice.  One of the benefits of doubt is that it has led me to learn more than I ever would have if I just blindly accepted the faith of my parents or of those around me.  Feeling doubt has given me permission to ask questions, to listen to others’ experiences, to search for answers in a variety of places.  It has given me reasons to explore my beliefs in the context of daily life.  And it has led me down paths I never would have explored if I had never questioned what I had been told to believe.

In doing some Internet research on the idea of doubt, I came across an author named Macrina Wiederkehr.  She is a Benedictine nun at an Arkansas convent and has written several books.  In one, I found a prayer that includes the line quoted in the order of service – May there always be a little faith in your doubt.   Gutierrez would probably say “May there always be a little doubt in your faith.”

Another of Sister Macrina’s books is titled A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary.  As a collector of angels, I was intrigued by the title.   Although there are a variety of ornaments on our holiday tree each year, there are definitely more angels than any other figure – it is truly a tree full of angels!   Really, throughout the year, you can find angels in my house.  I have quite a collection!

To me, angels represent the good in ourselves and in others.   They watch over me, helping me remember to treat others with kindness and to look for the good in those around me.  You can find images of angels everywhere.  They are depicted in art, sold as figurines and jewelry, even portrayed as characters in books and movies.  One image of angels that I like to picture in my mind was inspired by the Nora Ephron movie “Michael”, starring John Travolta and Andie McDowell.  In one scene, a small dog is hit by a truck and the title character scoops him up, wraps his wings around the lifeless body, and lo and behold, the dog jumps out of his arms, fully restored.  While that “miracle” may be a bit hard to believe, I love the image of our “guardian angels” holding us close, wrapping us up in their wings.

My mental image of angels is also partly inspired by Frank Peretti’s book This Present Darkness – a story of a spiritual battle between angels and demons, the classic conflict of good vs. evil, with the force of good embodied in the large, white-robed figures that are strengthened by the prayers of the faithful.

While the idea of praying is one I have struggled with, I do like the image of angels gathering strength from people who pray for others.  At the Women’s Retreat this past April, I attended a workshop titled “Praying in Color”.  In it, I learned that we can pray FOR someone without praying TO someone.  Praying can mean focusing one’s energy on one thought, one action, one person.  Holding that person in your heart, sending good thoughts out into the universe, blessing them with your love.  When I pray for someone, I like to envision them surrounded by light and love, wrapped in the wings of an angel.

Another inspiration for me is a song by the group Alabama called Angels Among Us.  It tells the story of a young boy who gets lost in the woods and a mysterious figure who appears and helps him home.  The chorus goes like this:

I believe there are angels among us

Sent down to us from somewhere up above

They come to you and me in our darkest hours

To show us how to live

To teach us how to give

To guide us with a light of love

Whether or not you believe in supernatural, miraculous events, in the battle between the forces of good and evil, in the appearance and disappearance of mysterious figures, the idea that there are people around us who help in times of trouble, who share our pain and our joy, who teach us how to live and give and love, can be very comforting.

Over the years, I have found some of those angels among us – friends who have offered support when I needed it, a shoulder to lean on when I was feeling vulnerable, a sounding board when I had to talk through a problem, a wise word when I was feeling unsure.  So while I often doubt the existence of God in the traditional sense, I do believe in angels. They are all around me.  Unfortunately, sometimes I get too caught up in my life to pay attention.  I need to remember to take the time in my busy days to look for them.

The second part of the title of Sister Macrina’s book, A Tree Full of Angels, is about seeing the Holy in the Ordinary.  One thing that I have learned in my quest for answers is that the sacred is not limited to religious figures, ancient writings, or dogmatic creeds.  I have learned to look for the Holy in the mundane, to experience the divine in others, to find those moments of grace between the pages of daily life.

As many of you know, I have talked before about my discomfort with the idea of God – at least the God of my childhood.  But I am fairly comfortable with the idea of a Higher Power.  For me, that Higher Power is manifested in ourselves.  I believe that there is something divine in each one of us, something sacred in all that we see and do and experience in this world.

When we join together in community, whether during Sunday morning service, a Friday night POW gathering, a Tuesday evening committee meeting, or a Saturday Circle Supper, we are creating a sacred space just by sharing ourselves with each other.

When we walk a labyrinth or serve at a soup kitchen or welcome a new member, we are experiencing the divine in ourselves and in others.   We are sanctifying the rituals of daily life.  By living fully in each moment, we can learn to find the holy in the ordinary.  We can find a blessing in the daily events of our lives.

Those blessings can come in many forms — the good, the bad, and even the ugly.  Blessing is an interesting word.  We can offer blessings and we can receive blessings.  We bless and are blessed by those in our lives who love and support us.  We are also blessed by the beauty of the natural world, by that which inspires and excites us.  We welcome the blessings of all the positive things that happen to us as we journey through life.

But we can also be blessed by the difficult times, by the challenges we face, by our doubts and by those who do not support us.  We are blessed by these trials because they present us with opportunities – even uncertainty is an opportunity.  Everything we do and everything that crosses our path – people, situations, ideas – all have the potential to contribute to our growth and understanding.

A faith that is tested can give us the opportunity to explore other traditions and learn more about who we are as individuals. An unexpected death can bring a family closer together in shared grief.  An injustice in the world can offer us the chance to stand up for what we believe.  A family illness can create an opportunity to learn things we might not have otherwise.

One of the challenges I have been dealing with recently is my father’s declining cognition.  While Alzheimer’s robs us of the people we know today, one blessing has been that I have learned more about who my father was as he moves further and further back in time.  I am learning about his life as a child on the farm, as a young man in the navy and as a husband and father working to support his family.  Another blessing in this difficult time is that I feel that in helping to care for him, I am, in a small way, repaying him for all that he has done for me over the years.

So back to the image of the boy under the table.  When I am feeling overwhelmed by the doubts and challenges of life, when I can’t see the blessings I know are there, when I am too rushed to notice the angels among us, I need to remember, it will all be OK.  I need to come out from under the kitchen table, face my challenges head on, and seek those blessings, those sacred moments, those hints of the holy in the daily rituals of life, one at a time.  Bird by bird.

Filling my dash…

I have a Jewish friend who forwards emails to me on a regular basis.  Occasionally, her emails make reference to God, and I have noticed that she spells His name G – d.  I think, from what I have read, that observant Jews follow this practice out of reverence for the Almighty – having the belief that we as humans are not able to fully understand Him, and so we should not use his full name.  In this interpretation, the dash represents all that they don’t know, can’t know, about their god.  Think of all the various names that different faiths and different people use for God.  Yahweh, Allah, Father, Almighty, Spirit… the list is too long to name.  To me, the dash represents the fact that we all have different understandings, different interpretations of who or what God is.  The differences between us – the important distinctions – are all in the dash.

Even within each of us, there can be different, sometimes conflicting understandings of the idea of God.  There can be the God of our childhood – the one that our parents believed in and taught us to believe in.  For some, that was a vengeful god, keeping a tally of our sins for the day when we would be judged.  For others, it was a God of forgiveness, full of love for His children.  And yet others might remember a God that was 3 in one – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I grew up being instilled with the concept of a trinity and with an image of God, the Father, as an old man sitting in the sky.  Even as a young person, I just couldn’t accept that as plausible.  It seemed too far-fetched to be real, so for a long time, I was very uncomfortable with the whole idea.

Whether or not we were raised with a concept of God, as an adult, we might have a whole different understanding of the Holy. Individually, we may each have different names for the Divine.   One may profess faith in a living, loving God, another in a Holy Being that transcends life; still others, in the Spirit of Life that we sing about each Sunday, or even in a Goddess of the earth… Some may disavow the idea of God all together. However we conceptualize God, if we do at all, it is our own understanding that is important.  As Thomas Jefferson said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no god.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

I still have some hesitation over the term God.  It seems to carry a connotation that I am uneasy with.  On the other hand, I have come to appreciate the concept, borrowed from many 12-step programs, of a “Higher Power” or a “god of my own understanding”.   I like the phrase “Higher Power” – it provides another perception of the Holy, the idea that the word G – d doesn’t have to refer to a being at all – it can mean the power of love in a community, the life force that joins us together, or – if you think of the dash as standing for “OO” – the GOOD in each other.

So for me, the dash in the word G – d represents the divine, the spirit, the spark that resides within me – within all of us.  I do believe that there is something holy in all of us that only gets bigger when we give it away.  Your spark, your love, your spirit only grows stronger when you share it with others.

So how to we recognize the divine in ourselves?  In each other?  Consider this poem .

The Dash
Linda Ellis

I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning…to the end.

He noted that first came the date of her birth
And spoke of the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
That she spent alive on earth…
And now only those who loved her
Know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own;
The cars….the house…the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard…
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
That can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough
To consider what’s true and real,
and always try to understand
the way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger,
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect,
And more often wear a smile…
Remembering that this special dash
Might only last a little while.

So, when your eulogy is being read
With your life’s actions to rehash…
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spend your dash?

Examining how we spend our dash can help us find that spark. Do we fill it with things?  With people?  With money?  With service?  Is it about whom we love, or what we have, or even how we worship?  Forrest Church, a UU minister who is widely quoted, says, “Religion is the human response to being alive and having to die.”  So is religion how we should fill our dash?   Personally, I tend to resist the word “Religion” – much as I used to resist the word God.  It brings back memories of childhood and the hypocrisy I felt when attending church.  A better word for me is Spirituality, so perhaps I can paraphrase Reverend Church by saying that Spirituality is the human response to life and death.  Spirituality is what should fill our dash.

But what exactly is Spirituality?  For some, it is about a belief in a supreme being – in G – d.  For others, it is less about “god” and more about the Spirit within themselves.  Spirituality, our dash, is a path we are all on, a journey towards truth.  Each path is a personal one and as truth evolves, the path can change.  This spiritual journey is a search for one’s core beliefs and for ways to demostrate those beliefs through actions.  It is also a recognition of those moments that speak to us on a level sometimes beyond description.

Spirituality is about noticing the small things – the soft skin of a newborn baby, the smell of the salt air by the beach, the colors of a sunset flooding the horizon.  It is also about noticing the big things.

When I was in high school, I spent many weekend hours with my dad on the farm he owned about an hour outside of town.  One Saturday, the work that needed to be done took longer than he expected and we were still there after dark.  As my dad continued to work in the barn, I climbed up onto the roof of our station wagon and laid back, staring up at the sky.  As the light faded away, stars began to emerge, first the biggest and brightest, then the smaller and fainter.  Out there in the country, far from the lights of the city, the sky was darker than I had ever seen.  I tried to count the stars and quickly realized there were many more than I could even begin to number.  When it seemed as if the sky couldn’t get any darker and the stars any more numerous, a cloud of dust emerged across the sky – the Milky Way!  I had heard of it, but being a city girl had never actually seen it.  I think that was my first, and possibly most vivid, spiritual moment.

I realized then that there was something out there, larger than each of us, larger than all of us.  I feel that we are like the stars scattered across the sky.  Some are bigger and brighter, some smaller and fainter, but each one adds to the beauty and together we create moments beyond description.  These moments are the stepping stones on our journey, but we still have to fill the space in between.

For me, filling my dash is about finding who I am and examining how I live my life – it is about finding the spirit within myself, and how I share that spirit with others.  Lois W., co-founder of Al-Anon, defines Spirituality as “living a life that has deeper meaning than the search for daily necessities.”   I strive to live a spiritual life, a life that has meaning – that will leave an imprint on those whose lives I touch.

A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of attending a celebration for a woman who was retiring from my school after 40 years of work.  It coincided with her 75th birthday, so the event was truly a celebration of her life.  Current and former colleagues, students and administrators spoke fondly of the dedication she had shown the school and the love they felt for her.  They told funny stories about things that had happened over the years.  They spoke of her faith and her spunk, of her laughter and her hugs.  We were surprised to learn that she had taken up the piano in her 60’s.  And that she planned to travel now that she was retired.  And you might be surprised to learn that she was not a teacher, not an administrator, not even an office staff member.  She was on the housekeeping staff – she spent 40 years helping to set up for receptions, cleaning up afterwards, keeping the halls and the classrooms neat and tidy, and generally taking care of all those who passed through them.  But through it all, her life – her dash – touched many people.  And how wonderful it was for her to hear that celebrated while she was still there to receive that gift.

I have been teaching for almost 24 years, and can only hope that I have touched a few students and colleagues along the way.  I counted up the other day – give or take a few dozen, I have taught almost 1500 students.  One of those former students was at the celebration for this woman, and how heartwarming it was to have her come over to me to give me a hug and let me know she had fond memories of my class.  If there is someone in your life whose dash has touched you in some way, I hope you can find a way to say thank you, to let them know that their life had an impact on you.  And perhaps one day, someone will come up to you and say thanks.  Thanks for being an inspiration.  Thanks for being a role model.  Thanks for helping me through a tough time.  Thanks for being there when I needed a friend.  Thanks for being you.

On being Unitarian…

I am a Unitarian Universalist.  That is such a tongue twister that we are often just known as Unitarians.  I know there are other Unitarians out there, but most people probably don’t know much about this particular faith tradition.  Actually, I am still learning about it myself!  The Unitarian Universalist church has a rich history that involves the blending of 2 traditions – Universalism and Unitarianism – both of which started hundreds of years ago in Europe. The Unitarians were primarily known for their belief in the unity of God rather than the trinity – in other words, they believed in the moral authority of Jesus, but not necessarily his divinity.  The Universalists on the other hand were known for their belief in universal salvation – that everyone would eventually be united with the Holy, that no one would be condemned for eternity.  After these two denominations began to emerge in America in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Unitarians and Universalists grew closer and closer in their theology. Eventually, by the early 1960’s, the two American branches combined and formed the Unitarian Universalist Association.

This relatively new denomination is not based on just one or the other of its predecessors, but a real blending of concepts from both, focusing on their commonalities of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance. It also incorporates lots of ideas from other faith traditions. In fact, people from many different backgrounds and faiths – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and even Pagan – all can feel affirmed in the Unitarian church.

Unitarian Universalism is very different from most other religions in that it doesn’t have a specific doctrine or creed.  How that works is somewhat difficult to explain, especially in under 1000 words, but I will give it a try!   I read recently that the word Religion comes from the same root as the word “ligament”.  I am sure you have heard of ligaments… muscles.  Both words have to do with that which holds us or binds us together. When someone talks about their religion, they are usually referring to a particular set of beliefs, shared by the members of that group, that bind them together.   For example, members of certain religions often share a belief in one or more particular deities, in a single written source as the word of God, in certain rituals such as baptism or Holy Eucharist, or in creeds that promise salvation to the believers.

Unitarian Universalists, on the other hand, believe none of these… or all of these… or some combination of these. In the Unitarian faith, what binds us together is not a common set of religious beliefs but rather a common set of values and attitudes towards life.  Some Unitarians say that we as a group have many beliefs, but one faith, that we don’t have to believe alike to love alike.  In fact, within any Unitarian congregation, you will probably find lots of different beliefs, with no one judging anyone else as being wrong.

Unitarian Universalism is known as a liberal theology – meaning it supports broadminded thinking about spiritual issues and offers the freedom to choose our own beliefs. As I mentioned, the Unitarian church doesn’t have one particular creed that we all ascribe to or even one scripture that we all follow – instead we use lots of different sources of inspiration, both religious and secular, written and experienced.   It is a tradition that focuses more on how we live our life, how we treat each other, and less on dictating what we should believe – some people say we value Deeds over Creeds; service and diversity over dogma and unity of thought.

What Unitarian Universalists do have in common is a set of 7 guiding Principles that were written by members of the faith and adopted by the national association. These principles compel us to value and affirm every living being, to treat them with compassion, to serve the needs of others and to acknowledge the interconnected-ness of human life and all that is around us.

In simplified language, the seven principles are:
1. Everyone has worth and is important.
2. Be kind in all you do.
3. We are free to learn and grow together.
4. Seek the truth.
5. All people need a voice – democracy in all things.
6. Build a fair and peaceful world.
7. Care for the Earth and all that is in it.

The fourth principle – seek the truth – represents another aspect of the Unitarian church that is different from many other religions, particularly those that use the Bible as the source of all truth. Unitarians generally accept the view that Truth (with a capital T) is an evolving, growing, living thing for which we are, and will continue to be, searching. It isn’t limited to what has already been written; it continues to be revealed to us all.

Unitarians are known to be very tolerant of, even welcoming to, diverse points of view.  Many feel that everyone brings a part of the truth with him or her, and that it is through questioning each other and sharing our experiences and faith that we can continue to learn and that the ultimate truth will be revealed.

So, my story… Well, like many Unitarian Universalists, I was raised in a more “traditional” church – most of my family is actually Catholic, so I grew up going to Mass every Sunday. It didn’t take me long to realize that THAT was not the path for me to follow – even in high school, I remember feeling somewhat hypocritical when I would attend church with my parents because I didn’t believe what everyone around me seemed to.  Although I knew I wasn’t going to follow the Catholic path, it took many years and much introspection for me to find my own direction.

For a long time – all through college and for several years beyond, I didn’t go to church at all.  After college, I lived in Virginia and taught at a school that was not religiously affiliated at all, so we didn’t have chapel every day like we do here. I also didn’t feel the need to go to church on Sundays since I didn’t believe in all the things that church represented to me, at least not in the way that I assumed one was supposed to.  But after reading a book called “This Present Darkness”, and doing a lot of thinking about what I did believe, I realized that I didn’t have to be religious to be spiritual, that I didn’t have to believe exactly what a particular church taught to be a part of one.   So one Sunday morning, I decided to check out an Episcopal church that I had driven by many times.

The sermon that day really spoke to me and I started attending service there on a regular basis.  It was nice, for a while, but I think that was mostly because it felt familiar.  Not only was the ceremony similar to what I had been raised with – Catholic Mass and Episcopalian Eucharist services are very similar – but I had attended an Episcopal high school, so I felt fairly comfortable in that environment.  I thought at the time that it was a better fit for me than being Catholic – it seemed to be less rigid in what you were supposed to believe, but still had the structure I was used to.   After a while, though, I realized being an Episcopalian wasn’t quite right either.  I was still wrestling with what exactly I believed in and although St. John’s (the church I had been attending) was a friendly place, it still didn’t feel like “home”.

When I moved to Memphis 11 years ago, I started teaching at an Episcopal school where we have chapel every day.  I thought – OK, I go to church 5 days a week – I don’t need to go on Sundays.  And besides, where would I go?  I certainly wasn’t Catholic, nor did I feel like I was Episcopalian.  I wasn’t sure what I was, so I decided to be nothing.  But I did feel like there was something missing – I wanted to belong somewhere.  I just didn’t know where… I wanted to find a spiritual home that would match what I did believe and not admonish me for what I didn’t.

A few years ago, during one of our daily chapel services, we had a speaker who was a female Rabbi at a local synagogue.  Much of what she had to say resonated with me, so I thought hey – that’s it!  Maybe I should look into becoming Jewish!  From what I could tell, it seemed to fit my beliefs better than anything else had so far.  Well, in doing some research on the internet, I soon found a website on which I could take an online quiz.  If I answered a list of questions about my beliefs, it would point me in the direction of a religion.  Surely it would tell me I should be Jewish!  So I took the quiz, answered each question as best I could – including some “I’m not sure’s” – and lo and behold, the website told me I was a perfect match for….. Unitarian Universalism!  Who knew?

I had heard of Unitarian churches… I had seen one near where I lived in Virginia and knew someone who went there, but didn’t know much about it.  I also knew that there were 2 Unitarian churches here in Memphis – a friend had invited me to the Church of the River once and she mentioned that there was another Unitarian church further east.   At the time, I wasn’t looking for a church, so didn’t think anything more about it.  Well, when I decided to check out this “perfect match” religion, I realized that the Church of the River is all the way downtown and I live in Cordova. I didn’t really want to have to drive that far.  I wasn’t sure where the other one was, but I was sure it was closer than downtown… so I looked it up in the phone book.  Again, my research turned up a surprising answer!  I found out that Neshoba Unitarian Universalist Church is in … Cordova!  About 5 minutes from my house!  I figured it was a sign!  So I went … the very next Sunday.  And the next.  And the next.  Each week I went back, I was more and more convinced that I had found where I needed to be.  Neshoba is a relatively small congregation, but very much a welcoming one, and that is nice – I found it was really easy to meet people and to get involved.  I had finally found a church that gave me the freedom to explore my own beliefs and to view the Divine in a way that was meaningful to me.

According to the weekly bulletin, Neshoba describes itself as: “an intentionally diverse liberal religious community” that “fosters religious growth and spiritual learning.”   The minister, the other members, and the printed materials that I was offered all let me know that no matter where I was on my religious and spiritual journey, with all my doubts and questions, passions and beliefs, certainty and uncertainty, I was welcome at Neshoba.

The more I spend time there, and the more I learn, the more I come to realize that I have probably been a Unitarian Universalist all my life, but just didn’t know it!  I have a long way to go in my spiritual growth, but being a part of such a supportive community makes the journey safe and fun!  By the way, if you are wondering about that online quiz… it is at beliefnet.com.

The church service at Neshoba isn’t that different than other places.  It involves singing, readings, prayers, a sermon and ceremonial candle lighting.  One of my favorite parts of the weekly service is after the peace candle ceremony when we all join in saying what we call our Affirmation of Covenant.  A covenant is an agreement that you promise to uphold.  This affirmation is a covenant that we enter into with God (however we define that) and with our fellow human beings.  It is the closest thing we have to a creed that we follow. I would like to end with it because it really sums up what being a Unitarian Universalist means to me:

Love is the doctrine of this church,
The quest for truth is our sacrament and service is our prayer.
To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom,
To serve human need to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine;
Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.