FUUNCO: 2 February 2003
Dr. Barbara Coeyman
Has anyone ever had the length of an elevator ride to explain to someone else what church you attend? Or maybe you've been standing in the grocery store line, and you've got 25 words or less to explain Unitarian Universalism? Or, if you're new today, perhaps you've been on the receiving end of 25-word explanations of liberal religion?
What have you said, or what have you heard? Maybe the conversation was about positive things that attracted you to a Unitarian Universalist congregation: great variety of religious beliefs, or respect for reason and personal experience, maybe that Unitarian Universalists tend to be funloving people, who welcome you to church no matter what your age or clothing style or hair color. I know that these are some reasons I was first attracted to a Unitarian Church back in Pittsburgh in 1990.
However, sometimes our conversations might be a bit confusing. For instance, sometimes I hear explanations about liberal religion using negatives: Unitarian Universalism does NOT have creeds; or it is NOT dogmatic, or NOT orthodox, or NOT Trinitarian. Now I don't know about you, but for me it's hard to get a grip on what something IS by hearing what it's NOT....I bought a new car last summer. If my salesman had explained all the features I was NOT getting in the model I was interested in, do you think I'd have bought it? I wanted to know what I WAS getting when I bought my 2002 Legacy Outback fivespeed station wagon.
Also, even positive explanations of liberal religion's inclusiveness can be confusing, especially to folks from more orthodox traditions. I attended the Presbyterian seminary in Austin. I was the only UU there. Even though I think I spoke fairly positively, it was difficult for some of my colleagues to understand a religion that draws on many traditions, not only Christianity, or one in which worship is very different from congregation to congregation, or one that understands religious wisdom as ever-changing.
And it's not a simple thing, making sense of an approach to spirituality and religion that is so fluid and sometimes ambiguous. For example, that Unitarian Universalism has no creeds sometimes gets mis-interpreted as having no belief system or conditions for membership, or, as our National Commission on Appraisal recently said, "Our Freedom gets confused with a lack of commitment to anything" and "with an absence of limits on personal behavior." It's no surprise that there's jokes about Unitarians, like the ones I've heard from Garrison Keiler on Prarie Home Companion about how getting Unitarians together in one place is like herding cats.
And it's also no surprise that our Commission on Appraisal urges us-as indi viduals and as congregations-to be clearer about what free religion is all about. This Commission has specific recommendations for how to do this. One of the Commission's recommendations is to consider how a sense of limits and boundaries helps focus our understanding of our identity. Now, in case words like 'limits' or 'boundaries' have bad connotations for anyone, I ask you to at least hear me out this morning. Perhaps you can be persuaded about the value of limits and boundaries. The Commission and I are using these words in the sense of 'framework' or 'structure' or 'focus.' We're not talking about curtailing the great diversity and variety that we all value. And we're not talking about blind conformity to rules and systems, especially those that keep us from exploring life to the fullest. By 'boundaries' and 'limits,' both the Commission and I are talking about developing attitudes and habits that will focus our religious identity, and maybe improve our elevator conversations.
To make more sense of this idea of boundaries within freedom, I want to tell you a story that I learned as a music teacher. It's about the classical Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, who convinced me that boundaries and freedom can be quite compatible with one another. In a lecture Stravinsky gave at Harvard University in the 1950s, he said that when patrons commissioned new compositions from him he preferred to be given guidelines. Rather than having free reign to write anything he wanted, he preferrred to know, for example, that his patron wanted a work for brass ensemble, to last about 12 minutes (I'm making up this illustration-I don't think Stravinsky ever wrote such a work.) Stravinsky preferred boundaries, because within boundaries he was most free to be creative. If he had theoretically a complete world of sounds to chose from, there were just too many possibilities for combining notes, and the composition would lack distinction. With a whole world of choices, Stravinsky could not find freedom. Within boundaries, he could let creativity flow. For Stravinsky, this tension between self-expression and boundaries was what created art. Stravinsky was unquestionably one of the most innovative classical composers ever. His focussed method for composing ironically stretched the possibilities for how we all hear music today. Stravinsky expanded the art of composition.
Personally, I relate well to Stravinsky's advice, and maybe some of you do too. I often feel much more creative within guidelines and limits. My natural tendency is to want to do it all and say yes to everybody-no wonder that I ended up a Unitarian Universalist! So boundaries and deadlines help me focus, in life and in ministry. I often come up with the best, clearest ideas when I don't have endless time or resources.
I have also seen many ways in which boundaries enhance congregational identity. For example, boundaries and guidelines are important in matters of membership. Clear terms for membership can help newcomers decide whether a church is for them. First Unitarian Church of Portland, where I did my intern ministry, has a clearly-defined procedure for becoming a member and being welcomed into the church community. It includes a ceremony to sign the membership book, several orientation classes, and a minimum pledge. That church must be doing something right: since the early 90s, they've nearly tripled their membership and outgrown several buildings in downtown Portland.
This idea of including boundaries in free religious identity is not unique to this recent report from our Commission on Appraisal. The use of boundaries also resonates with the fourth principle of Unitarian Univeralism. Just to remind you, this principle says that we respect 'a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.' We usually talk about the nouns in this principle, the 'search for truth and meaning.' Instead, for a few minutes I want to consider the adjectives: the 'free' and 'responsible' part. We probably gravitate easily to the first adjective: a FREE search is at the core of liberal religion. This means that each person may pursue the search for truth in his or her own way. This spirit of searching freely, as Samuel in our story did for his treasure, defines our democratic way, our independence. In a spirit of freedom, each of us consequently may uncover more about her or his own inherent worth and dignity. But let's not overlook the other adjective. In addition to searching freely, we are also called to search responsibly. As I see it, this is where boundaries come in. Responsible free faith asks each person to have a distinct path for his search, to have distinct beliefs. Responsible free faith also asks that we live out that chosen path, that chosen faith, very intentionally. That is, in being responsible, we are committed-not casual-seekers, as we explore the mystery of what it means to be alive. This freedom of choice of course generates great diversity, especially since we might chose a different path tomorrow, next week, or next year, as we experience new dimensions of life. Just think about the diversity here this morning: some of you may best identity as Buddhist or liberal Christian or religious humanist.... or perhaps you are pagan or feminist or atheist or agnostic or grounded in nature. Which path you follow is not the point: that you each have a path is.
There is even yet more to responsible searching. At the same time that we each define a clear path for ourselves, we also have a responsibility to respect the paths of everyone else in our community, especially to respect those paths that are different from our own. We ARE independent seekers, but we are ALSO interdependent. Responsible free faith asks us to come together in love and respect. In free faith, we are connected not through creed but through covenant, a covenant rooted in love. This covenant has been central to liberal religion in this country for over three centuries.
What an inspirational heritage we have! Connecting with others may be the harder part of responsible for faith to practice. I suspect one reason we could sometimes fall short in connecting with others is out of fear or uncertainty about who the OTHER is, the one who is different from us, not only different religiously, but also different by culture, or race, or class, or sexual orientation, or physical abilities. We tend to fear what we don't know. That's why clear identity can help connections. Being clear about who we are personally and as a congregation, can help us connect to others and invite others to know us even better. To me, this is the greatest power and beauty of free faith: this capacity to be unified through our diversity. This is what empowers my own search for truth and meaning, to learn from people who believe differently from me.
For the past several years I've grounded my own spiritual path on process theology. Now, process ideas are complicated, and I don't want to turn this sermon into an analysis of process thought. So let me just say that process theology explains life through relationship, and through seeing life as an on-going, changing process. Process theology resonates with our seventh principle about the interconnectedness of all life. As an active member of this web, my process God helps me find my own focus and identity. My process God also reminds me of my covenant of interdependence with all life, with the natural world as well as with other people. My process God reminds me that we don't do religion alone, in isolation. We do it together, in community, sharing our treasures with one another, just as Samuel did with his community.
I had an experience with some youth last summer that convinced me that they understand these connections and, not coincidentally, the role of boundaries, pretty well. I was an adult adviser at Con Con, the Continental Conference of YRUU-Young Religious Unitarian Universalists. I spent a week with ten advisers and 150 youth at a camp in the mountains of central Washington State. Yes, I volunteered for this assignment-willingly. I wanted to learn more about our youth. Now, I admit a bit of anxiety before the retreat, as when I filled out the application form and under housing, had a choice of 'quiet cabin' or 'loud cabin.' I was also anxious because I heard about the history of youth gatherings. YRUU was formed in 1983. During the previous youth program, Liberal Religious Youth, there was a lot of out-of-control behavior. Youth interpreted 'liberal' as meaning they could do anything they wanted, and adults didn't intrude. This un-boundaried lifestyle hurt our movement-many youth dropped out and never came back, a hurt our national association is still trying to fix through programs such as the current Mind the Gap initiative. Some of the youth back then were missing the point about what it meant to live freely.
Last summer I was reassured. Even though assigned to a quiet cabin, I didn't sleep, not because of noise but because there was so much to do. The week was 'like, totally awesome.' I was especially impressed by how the youth understood well the balance between personal freedom and responsibility to the group, along with adults, committed to intervening should any youth lose a sense of appropriate boundaries. I worked on the worship committee with the youth-I was blown away by the innovative worship services, a new one every evening that week. I saw our youth embodying well the values that I understand liberal faith to be all about. Being both clear and positive about free religion is especially important in these threatening times, when congregations and communities need our democratic voices, speaking up about war around the world, cuts to social services here at home, desecration of the environment, discriminations based on skin color or economic class.
I believe in Unitarian Universalist evangelism-our Good News is too important to keep to ourselves. It is not enough for us to be talking among ourselves about these causes, and probably not even enough to be in the world fighting for them. To really work for change, our free identity must also be understood by the world. So, what about that 25-word explanation of the church you attend?-I'm going to leave it to each of you to compose one for yourself........
May we each find our own path to explain life's truths and meanings, and in so doing come to know ourselves better and be better known by others. May we also remember our covenant to live together responsibly, in our congregations and in the world. In living responsibly, may we also learn to live all the more freely.
SO BE IT.