As a child in Hebrew School, I was taught that we Jews were God's Chosen People. In my twenties, I joined the UU flock. I heard Rev. Tony Larson, chiding us for the stiff middle class UU intellectual culture. He referred to Unitarian Universalists as God's Frozen People. Today, I am pleased to report on the thawing of God's frozen people. There have been some exciting changes in our movement and I believe that this congregation, with its relatively short history and with plenty of young leaders, could easily get out in front of this new wave. I am talking about the emergence of a heartfelt spirituality.
In the 90's a great number of our congregations became welcoming congregations. We learned to become welcoming of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people. In the 21st century, we made efforts to become anti-racist and anti-oppressive, and to develop a radical hospitality. President Sinkford challenged us to reclaim a language of reverence. Global warming showed us the fragility of our interdependent web of life. The result of these and other trends is a spiritual awakening that has changed the quality and culture of our congregations.
Many have expressed concerns with the rising attention on spirituality. Goddess knows its been a slow evolution.
Listen to how one congregation answered the following modern theological question:
"How many UUs does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: An undetermined number. We choose not to make a statement either in favor of, or against, the need for a light bulb.
However, if on your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, that's fine. You are invited to form a committee, write a poem or compose a modern dance about your bulb for next Sunday's service, during which time we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence." 1
Sometimes our headiness has kept us from communion with the divine. The following story illustrates the problem.
And Jesus said unto his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" And behold, a Unitarian among them answered saying, "You are the kerygma behind all myths. You are the Logos incarnate. You are of one substance and coeternal with the Father, or the Mother, as the case may be. You are the eruption of eternity into the space-time continuum." And Jesus looked at the Unitarian and said, "What ?!"
Our headiness noted, we areproud of our movement's emphasis on reason and open discussion. Unitarians among America's founding fathers expressed these values and directed the new nation toward democracy and religious freedom. Our valuing of democracy, reason, and discussion has enabled continuous movement in our religious tradition.
This year at the general assembly of our congregations, we will likely ratify a revised version of the UUA Principles and Purposes. The revision we will vote on includes a change that I proposed and have advocated for the past decade. The proposed change of the 7th Principle replaces the word respect with the word reverence. If ratified the UUA's 7th Principle will read "we affirm and promote reverence for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part."
Reverence connotes an acknowledgment of standing in relation to something infinitely greater than our individual selves. Reverence demonstrates our willingness to welcome devotion and spirituality. Our services will not be limited to intellectual abstraction but will express passion, and encourage awe.
We still require intellectual integrity, but we want our religion to reflect the fullness of our lives, and help us to celebrate and to grieve. We are making new music that expresses our spirituality. We are fueling our religious journey with many forms of artistic expression. The ban on certain religious words has been lifted.
A while back, an African American woman visiting Community Church in San Antonio, gave a testimony during the discussion portion of our service. Referring to her departure from her Baptist upbringing, she stated "I have been a Unitarian for years but didn't know it." "I still love God," she continued. " I will always love God, and I am very glad to have found a church that acknowledges other religions."
It struck me that in none of the UU congregations I had visited in the past 25 years, had I ever heard a similar testimony expressing a personal faith in God. "How could this be?" I wondered. We regularly proclaim an emphasis on acceptance and tolerance. We display a variety of religious symbols, and post banners beneath them that say "You are welcome here." We proclaim theological diversity, but have you ever someone exclaim their love of God in our service? I had never heard such a thing before! It made me wonder how many people that visit our congregations, including those that join, get the message that they need to suppress their personal faith in order to fit in?
Beyond theology, there is an issue of decorum. Creative and emotional expression has been stifled by fears of disturbing our dignified atmosphere. Fortunately recent trends are bringing us more play, laughter, dance and spontaneity. We are discovering our power as congregations to enrich the religious lives of our members and to influence society- not only with intellect but with spirit! (Pause)
It has taken us time to become secure enough to exercise our religious and liturgical muscles. (pause) How many of you have ever cared for an animal that has been mistreated? It took time for that animal to learn to trust and be willing to approach people. Didn't it?
Many of us have had personal experience of toxic and intolerant religion. So we have kept our distance from the steel hand of Church Almighty. We've wanted to avoid anything that reminded us of "old time religion."
You know, there are people who will never set foot in a church again. People we love and respect. But we are not among that number. We know the bloody and oppressive history of religion, but are not so cynical as to write off religion altogether.
We have full understanding of religion's capacity to poison. But we also remember that religion has the capacity to carry and share spiritual treasure. We acknowledge that there are many paths to spiritual treasure, many ways to experience or understand divinity.
It took us some time to be able to trust the safety of our tradition, before we became willing to venture out onto the playground of religious life. It has taken us time to gain the courage needed to venture beyond the harbor of intellect and discussion, to sail into the waters of religious ritual and spiritual practice. It took us time as a movement to become willing to once again pick up the palette of religious encounter and paint upon the canvas of congregational life.
Today I honor, I lift up and I celebrate that we have gained the courage to nurture our souls through religious expression. I am delighted that we have become willing to praise the eternity that runs through us and connects us all. ...that we have become willing to stand together in awe, humility and mystery. We are learning to embrace spirit, energy and excitement. Can I get a Halleluah?
We want our religion to inspire and challenge us to live up to our values. And despite fears to the contrary, reclaiming spirituality within our religion has not stifled our diversity. It has not caused us to abandon reason. It has not caused us to lose our emphasis on social justice and ethics for this world. Quite the contrary, full-bodied faith has put wind in our sails.
Others have seen the same trends and said that we are moving in the wrong direction. I see us as moving into greater integrity with our principles and our values. I see us as beginning to move beyond the limitations of a particular cultural expression. I believe we are making inroads to challenge the elitism of the aristocratic culture that exists in liberal communities in general and Unitarianism in particular. We are moving beyond disembodied intellectualism into holistic, multicultural and full bodied spirituality.
Beyond any intellectual arguments I've given, I am excited about the changes because it has become easier for me to feel at home here.
I suspected that I was one of us from the first time I picked a pamphlet introducing UU. From the first service I attended I began to believe that I could belong to a religious community without sacrificing my integrity or my heart.
As excited as I was to find a UU congregation, I quickly began wanting something more. At first, I attributed my dissatisfaction to the fact that most of the members of my Fellowship were over 50. I was only 23, and at the time over 50 seemed old to me.
I liked the lecture and discussion format of services, and the classical music was okay, but I wanted a little rock and roll energy in my religion. Unfortunately, I didn't discover our UUYAN for another 3 years.
I was in seminary at the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkley , when I realized that my conflict wasn't just about age. It wasn't just about classical vs. rock and roll.
One day a friend said: "so you are a Protestant now, right?" "Protestant, gulp!" My mixed religious heritage consists of Catholicism and Judaism. In some ways it makes complete sense that someone with a Catholic mom and a Jewish Dad might become UU. However, the idea of being Protestant didn't sit well inside me.
Now I know that some of you who were raised Protestants wouldn't like to be considered Protestant either, .. but I wonder if you realize how much Protestant culture we have retained.
I intend no disrespect to Protestants. My point here is to acknowledge that we do carry cultural biases. Do you think the Irish Catholic in me wanted to become an English Protestant?
I mean I like Monty Python, but I think of English culture as so proper, so stiff upper lip. I come from a very different culture where there was "emotional intensity." Could I fit into a NE culture of enforced calm?
I came to this movement because of a social consciousness that had been nurtured in my childhood and adolescence. Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X awakened in me a desire for a society that acknowledged the inherent worth and dignity of every person.. My young heart pulsed with music of Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Tommy as well as songs from 11 years of Summer Camp that kept me hoping for something better than the American norm. I found beauty, fellowship and community when I discovered the Peace and Justice movement, an extensive network of people whose hearts called them to work for social change.
I bring to UUism, a heart shaped by years of daily prayer. When the destructiveness of teenage drug culture took me to the edge of a precipice, prayer saved me. Oh, and I am not talking about proper English prayers. My Jewish upbringing allowed me to question the source of life fiercely. Remember Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. He said "God did I have to be this poor?!" My teenage prayers sounded like; "why all this crap? And what do you want from me anyway?" The answers that came saved my life. It doesn't matter if you believe they came from within me or beyond me. Prayers, although they have changed some, continue to give me life.
Is there room in your Unitarian Universalism for someone like me? Do I have to hide what is most sacred to me to fit in here? Do I have to tone it way down so as not to rock the boat? Because if I do, you can bet that others also get the message that they better hide or throw away aspects of their faith, in order to fit in here.
Perhaps this is one reason that the majority of people who identify as UU are not members of UU congregations. Most people who join our congregations already fit within established cultural patterns. The greater the cultural differences, the more effort people must give to join us.
Who do we help to feel welcome? Do working class people experience radical hospitality in our congregations? Do people who identify as "spiritual but not religious" find us as a welcoming congregation?
When it comes to race, the challenge is greater because of deep-seated emotional currents from our nation's history of slavery, domination and genocide. Have you ever noticed that the speech patterns of the majority of UUs of color reflect a culture of higher education? Do African Americans and Hispanics need a Ph.D to be one of us?
If we treasure the Principles and Purposes of our UUA, let us ask ourselves if the way we express them is the only way they can be expressed? Are we willing to make room for other cultural expressions and experiences of UU values?
Can we make room for religious practice, devotion, and faith? To grow as a religious movement, we may need to heal our anti-religious sentiments. Let's face it -- many of us have baggage, issues with religious authority. Many of us equate being religious with being fundamentalist, oppressive or dominating.
We can be religious and maintain our progressive values! We can discover and create new ways to be religious together. We can infuse our activism with our spirituality.
Activist spirituality is evident in the growing number of UU congregations becoming "Green Sanctuaries." The UU Ministry for Earth who initiated the Green Sanctuaries Project also put a banner on its website homepage, promoting "the ten tree challenge," and 30 or more UU congregations accepted that challenge. With no funding, no staff, little structure and no great leadership, UU congregations were responsible for the planting of 2500 trees. The project helped congregations to express and experience our 7th Principle. I'd like tree planting to become a UU sacrament.
I want our religion to support us to see the beauty and interconnectedness of life. I also want our religion to encourage us to face difficult challenges such as racism, global warming, and the ways that we have become estranged from the divine energy within us. Our religion can be a great force for healing in these extraordinary times. We can offer healing to society, if we will open our minds and our hearts, and act with reverence for the web of life.
How far could our spirit reach? Could we inspire and challenge the human race to sustain life on the planet? There is a holy and sacred power moving in and through us. sustain life on the planet? There is a holy and sacred power moving in and through us. Regardless of what we call that power, if we heed its call, we will be a religious people. We will be alive, and God's frozen people no more.