If you would enter into the wilderness, do not begin without a blessing. Do not leave without hearing who you are: Beloved.
How often do we do this?
How often do we find ourselves faced with a difficult, harrowing road–a real crisis–that, we know, is going to take some time to get through (we might even fear if we are going to make it!), how often do we begin with a blessing that names us as beloved?
Methodist minister and writer, the Rev. Jan Richardson, who wrote the Lenten blessing Lynn just read for us–for we are now five days into the season of Lent which in the Christian tradition looks to the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent wandering and wrestling in the harsh desert (talk about a time of crisis!), Rev. Richardson writes, “How else to enter into the forty-day place that lay ahead of him? How else to cross into the wilderness where he would have no food, no community, nothing that was familiar to him—and, to top it off, would have to wrestle with the devil? How else, but to go into that landscape with the knowledge of his own name: Beloved.”
How else to enter?
We are working with the theme of Faith this month. More specifically, Renewing Faith. Which is a comforting phrase. It suggests that our faith is a shifting, evolving thing, right? Something that needs reviving, resuscitating. Maybe even, resurrecting. All of these words imply some kind of action or motion. All of them also imply a kind of death. Many of you can relate to that, I’m sure of it. For who among us has not laid to rest pieces of their faith story? Some of us have buried things deep in the ground, and never returned to the cemetery for a visit. Leave it, some of you might say. No going back there.
But faith, not unlike grief, has a way of not being linear. Our meditation hymn today captures this well: Return again, return again, return to the home of your soul…And one can’t return, if you haven’t gone out or away. Flitting away, being apart from ourselves is a part of life’s journey. And so it goes with a faith journey. Out and in. I believe, I don’t believe. Lost and found…and lost again.
But let’s back up here. For what exactly is faith?
Our thousands-year-old Unitarian and Universalist history is rooted deeply in an ever-evolving faith. At many points, this ‘faith’ was articulated in statements that began with the words “we believe…”, which is a good way to understand ‘faith’: we believe. What do we believe in?
Our early 19th century Universalist siblings made clear: “We believe that there is one God whose nature is Love and that all souls are saved.” Our Unitarian friends believed in the unity of a loving, perfect God and Jesus as a wise man and teacher. Not divine. Human.
Belief statements such as these, were the creeds that bound these churches to a common, lived faith.
But Unitarians and Universalists were seekers committed to an alive-ness of faith, something that could evolve, and because of this we can see how our religious movement arrived at its pivotal decision in the 1960’s to not only merge for it was at this point that we became Unitarian Universalists, but that we began to openly identify as a Free Faith. For surely there are many pathways to this wondrous God, and to this wondrous love. The Free Church in a Changing World was the title of one of the first documents produced after the consolidation of these two movements and was published in 1963 following the work of six study commissions coordinated by the newly formed Unitarian Universalist Association, the ‘UUA’. One of the guiding statements in this published report was this:
In most other churches, theological quandary is personal. It is not institutional. With us, on the contrary, theological quandary is not personal, it’s institutional. We have set at the heart of our church, not a creed or a statement of faith, but the principle that theological questions shall be kept open. We, therefore, have no creed and can have none.
And listen, this creed-less, theologically roomy, free faith-ness is what makes this religious movement wild and wondrous, and you know I love this word: radical. No doubt. But this theological openness has also resulted in a bit of adrift-ness when it comes to both a vocabulary of faith and an intentionally lived and practiced faith.
And I need to point something else out here: this 1963 statement, and the majority of our bold UU statements across hundreds and hundreds of years, that still inform who we are, and how we function today, have more or less all been conceived of and written by upper-class, white men. And I want to stay with our exploration of faith, but we also need to carefully examine in what ways we have been handed a faith tradition, and an understanding of faith, by those who hold an immeasurable amount of privilege. And look, these were well-intentioned men–many of them fiercely committed to justice, but also bringing their inherited, lived experience of white, male faith, and planting it right smack dab in the center of our movement. This requires some attention, for it informs things.
I have to tell you that the time I dedicated this week to seeking out black leaders speaking about the evolving history and theology of our faith, what we believe, the future of our faith–who have been published–felt like a fool’s errand. And it left me feeling dismayed.
Yes, this informs things. Because since the 1960’s, despite the beauty of planting and building a theologically roomy, invitational tent, we have lost touch with a clear and evolving, personal, powerful, and liberating fluency of faith. Just what do you believe? How do you articulate it? What does it look like in practice? And many of our black UU theologians and scholars, including the incomparable Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, some of you heard our very own Beverly Smith reference him in the recent service that the Social Action Committee offered, diagnose Unitarian Universalists’ unspoken creed as one of solely worshipping individualized intellect, and intellectual freedom. Rev. Reed points out that this hyper-focus is a sign of privilege, and that the “economically and politically oppressed often have more pressing spiritual concerns.” Which begs the question: How is our faith, or faith-less-ness informed by privilege? That might take a lifetime to unpack, but I am committed to trying, nonetheless.
Our previous UUA president, our first and only black-identified president, the Rev. Bill Sinkford, was gripped by controversy and an uprise of scathing press when, in 2003, he wrote a sermon entitled “The Language of Reverence,” which called for an explicit need in Unitarian Universalism for “a language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name the holy, to talk about . . . a world guided by what we find to be of ultimate importance.” He has been very open about the pressing, urgent need, as a person of color for us to, “resist the urge to focus on religious breadth, and instead turn our attention to religious depth.” For him, there are “too many words that are off-limits in our religion, and that we have been swimming in a shallow and vague faith for too long.” His words.
And our well-intentioned white brothers in the 1960’s who made theological quandary something out there, instead of something in here (point to heart), well, because of our free faith, we get to renew this. Honor them, for they were good men of their time and also reinterpret it, revive it, resuscitate it, maybe even resurrect it. But born anew. Born anew. A fluency of faith co-created to meet this moment. A well-articulated, hefty faith that touches every inch of church and life. That guides us in all that we do: how we spend money, how we balance budgets, what we hang on our walls, how we govern, how we begin and end meetings, how we share in leadership and ministry, how we make decisions, how we listen, how we forgive on another, how we tend to conflict and hurt, how we care for our staff and this building, how we do justice both within and beyond our walls…
This is what Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed and Rev. Bill Sinkford are asking us to consider: how might the Spirit or a Wondrous Love or Fierce Hope, a language of reverence, crack open our hearts and enable us to truly encounter the depths of our soul and faith, and in turn the depths of another’s?
The time of Lent, Jesus’ faith journey shows us how to have faith in the face of horror. Trust that his spirit and our spirits can and will remain intact, and that no matter what, no matter what, we are loved, and love abounds. How else, as Rev. Jan Richardson writes, how else but to hold tight to this faith, this deep belief, this knowing–imbue everything we do with it, against all reason.
This is what this moment is calling for. And you are these people! I would not be here if I didn’t know this to be true. You are a people of deep, soulful, loving faith. I knew it the moment I met you.
So, I hope you will take the word FAITH with you this week. Ruminate on what it means to you, consider what your language of reverence is–and how you arrived on it. What’s in your faith suitcase? Maybe it’s time to clean it out! Or re-commit to it. What has been buried deep in the ground? How do you live your faith both within these walls and beyond them?
Talk about this with one another! Ask one another some of these questions!
You might want to seek out Rev. Sinkford’s sermon on ‘A Language of Reverence,’ or read up about the symbolism of Lent–I offered a link to Rev. Jan Richardson’s wonderful website in the Arbella, which is a treasure-trove of resources. See if any of them speak to you. Or commit yourself to finding out what UU people of color have to say about our faith.
It is time to make this personal. It is time to commit to this faithful seeking. And I promise you, in Rev. Richardson’s words:
that on this path
there will be help.
that on this way
there will be rest.
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
May it be so! Let us now sing this faithful journey and recommit ourselves to it! So won’t you rise in body or in spirit and receive the blessing that is music: The Fire of Commitment!
Reverend Sophia Lyons
Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.