Many of you already know that I was not brought up in this faith. My husband Jason and I were parents of young children living in a new town, hoping to build a community with people who cared about some of the things we did. And looking for a spiritual home that was theologically roomy. And not just for us, but also for our girls. I know many of you found your way here for these same reasons.
I remember the first UU service we attended, surrounded by kind people who told us where to sign up to get the newsletter and explained the difference between the gray and teal hymnal–who gave us a friendly nod when it was time to stand or sit down. And when we got to the part in the service where we, in unison, said the Affirmation of Faith, we said this earlier together, the words at this church went like this:
Love is the doctrine of this church,
The quest of truth is its sacrament,
And service is its prayer.
To dwell together in peace,
To seek knowledge in freedom,
To serve humankind in fellowship,
To the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine
Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.
Now. This was a church of about 400-500 people, so you had a lot of voices in that sanctuary. But the way this spoken affirmation sounded was more like a swelling and retreating cacophany–at times harmonious and at others, completely discordant. I first noticed this at the word: sacrament–where it seemed like a third of the congregation suddenly stopped speaking. Then “And service is its prayer”…again, at ‘prayer’ a bunch of folks quieted or mumbled something in a hushed tone. Then we got to the pinnacle of the thing: Thus do we covenant with each other and with GOD. But it didn’t sound like God, but rather 400+ versions of it. Spirit. Earth. Mystery. The kindly woman next to me who had been helping me with the hymnals looked at me, gave me a mischievous wink and then whispered, “welcome to Unitarian Universalism” and mouthed for me to sit down.
Now this particular Affirmation of Faith is as close to our original 1933 Universalist covenant as you get. But it has been altered freely among most UU congregations since this time. And I am thinking that maybe this was to avoid the discordant, Sunday improvisation that I experienced that day. But wasn’t my pew friend right about the discord capturing our free faith well? One where our quest for meaning is personal, one where we draw from a myriad of spiritual sources under this our big, whacky tent of harmonious, discordant belief and non-belief? And this, this is the sound of all of us, like our choir anthem sings. It’s compelling.
But here’s the thing. Unitarian Universalists, and I will include myself in this, we have not mastered theological roominess and welcome. Look, we are a new faith movement embarking on a grand experiment. We don’t have a road map for this. Some of us are as some of you put it, “stone-cold atheists” others are devoted, theist Christians. Oh, we are a Motley Crew here. It’s what I love about this faith, and friends, this is also what makes it so challenging. You know this well.
For a long time, UU churches have tended to this complexity by just removing these words from our vernacular entirely. And when I say ‘these words’ the list is long, too long to go through in one sermon. I’ve mentioned some of them, but here are some hot ones: holy, altar, convert, worship, church. Sin. Mission, covenant, Reverend!…I am sure you have many others, I would do a shout out session but we might be here all morning…
Without diving into the theological history of our faith it does make good sense to me that this religious movement needed to shed some of these words for a time. By doing this it helped bring about our seven principles and sources. It helped clarify our congregational polity–our governance and leadership. How we work together as a community. What binds us. And it helped us to articulate our vision of a faith rooted in spiritual tolerance and seeking, welcome and an expanding Love that looks to a myriad of sacred texts, not assigned creeds and doctrine based on just one. And I am proud of what we have built here. I am grateful to all the hands, minds and hearts who have gotten us here. I am proud to be a part of a church that aspires to offer spiritual sanctuary to those desperate for relief from the pangs of their childhood faiths. I am proud to be a part of this kind of sanctuary building.
And I also believe that today, today, being a sanctuary for the spiritually wounded does not mean being in the business of word banishment anymore, but rather, and I hope you hear this, a place for word reclaiming. For most of these words, if not all of them have been co-opted, abused, poorly translated and interpreted, and used as devices of oppression. And so, I ask, how might we be revolutionaries and cultivate a new, life-giving relationship with them? How might we begin to think about our congregations not as ‘decontamination chambers’ where people wash away their former religions or negative religious associations, and rather be a place where we confront them, and heal them and love them back into being. Take them back–because I don’t want to give them away anymore. Those who have misused and abused them have had them for far too long. The have had the floor for far too long.
Christian theologian Paul Tillich writes about it this way: “I call the name of the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being, God. That depth is what the word God means to me. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even the name itself.”
Let us be revolutionaries.
There is a great book, entitled “Fluent in Faith: A Unitarian Universalist Embrace of Religious Language” and written by Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar. It’s a stunning little book that I encourage you to read. I would be happy to get you a copy if you would like, just email me. Each chapter tends to a different theological word or concept re-visioned, so as to build up a re-claimed language of reverence. Paradoxically this language of reverence, that which is our Ultimate Concern, as Paul Tillich writes, often emerges out of the reckoning with words that have hurt us. In order to forget everything traditional that we have learned about the religious life we must first confront and disassemble the religions of our past–put this stuff into piles, not unlike cleaning out one’s closet, look at it squarely. And some of the questions to ask as you wade through it all might be why does this word drudge up what it does? What’s the story there? What does it really mean? That’s question changed me. It’s a great place to start. How does your spiritual past affect your spiritual present? Retrace your faith journey. We need to talk about this. We need to talk about this more with one another.
Back in September I preached about civil rights activist Ruby Sales and her profound question: Where Does it Hurt? placed in the realm of justice work. And I said that we would have to start asking it of ourselves, practice listening to what the answer was, find places where we could share it with another. And this is the same high stakes work that is at hand for our spiritual lives. Where we have come from, what has hurt us, what has brought us to life. Cultivate a relationship with it all–that’s our theme this month. Let it be our beginning.
This congregation, you, have so much to teach one another about this. In the past few months, I have been floored by your faith stories–the traditions you and your families were brought up in. The varied spiritual practices many of you are devoted to–how you found your way to them. How you have arrived at your present belief or non-belief. My hope and prayer is that we might start telling these stories more openly. Get clear about what they are. Re-purpose them. Re-claim them. Heal them. These stories matter here. And so does any pain you are still carrying from them. That matters here.
What a glorious, discordant harmony of voices we are.
Let’s listen to Ada Limon’s words again:
…I think of that walk in the valley where
J said, You don’t believe in God? And I said,
No. I believe in this connection we all have
to nature, to each other, to the universe.
And she said, Yeah, God. And how we stood there,
low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss,
and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets,
woodpecker flurry, and I refused to call it so.
So instead, we looked up at the unruly sky,
its clouds in simple animal shapes we could name
though we knew they were really just clouds—
disorderly, and marvelous, and ours.
And now, let’s let our voices–sung, hummed, imagined–intermingle. Disorderly and marvelous and ours, as we sing “All Creatures of the Earth and Sky.” Allelujah, Allelujah!