Our theme this month is Widening the Circle. This is not a theme that your worship committee, or I, or staff, cooked up, but rather takes its name from the 2020 report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change. They titled it: Widening the Circle of Concern. I have mentioned it before, and we will continue talking about it. It has certainly put a fire under our 8th Principle work.
This formidable commission–a group of eight, back in 2017 were given a charge by the UUA board of trustees: “to conduct an audit of the power structures and analyze systemic racism and white supremacy culture within the Unitarian Universalist Association.” Of course, this incredible group of people–the members of the commission–knew that to do this, they would have to cast a wide net, which included our congregations; they would have to center the honest testimonies of people of color and other marginalized groups; and they would have to keep track of the patterns they were going to encounter.
And many illuminating things emerged, but one of the MOST stunning, is that their commitment to a holistic approach–meaning that they resisted getting narrow about this audit–enabled them to articulate in their findings how the history of this our religious movement has landed us in a theological and spiritual sinkhole which keeps us from drawing wide and open and inclusive circles–and keeps us from true thriving. Their words: “we UU’s have not invested in developing the theological resources that could have allowed us to have a vocabulary of faith to meet these troubling times…” They go on to say that, “we have spent too much time comparing our religious wounds rather than healing them,” and that, right now, “…what is at stake is nothing less than the future of our faith.” Bold, right?
So, for those of us who waited with great anticipation for this commission and their data-driven findings and recommendations to be published in 2020, a quaking wave of surprise rippled through UU congregations when before us was not only a near 200-page wake up call to the daily oppressions experienced within our well-meaning church walls, but also–in equal balance–a call towards religiosity. Spiritual wholeness. Theological literacy. As our UUA President Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray says again and again: this is no time for a casual faith.
I return now to our month’s theme: Widening the Circle, the name of the commission which looks to an image–a widening circle–that holds a lot of theological heft. And I must tell you that circles have a way of finding me. I was raised by an artist father, a deeply reclusive mystic of sorts–who devoured philosophical and theological writings day and night, and never had the capacity to articulate in written word what his studies meant to him. So he drew it. Always abstractly. He would use micro-line ink pens–these are black ink pens whose tips were so fine that a dot made with them almost needed a microscope to be seen. And he would start with small dots or tiny shapes, different from piece to piece, and expand them out wider and wider until a circle would emerge. Some had distinct borders, some didn’t.
He loved the symbolism of the circle–it’s cyclical nature, it’s symmetry and balance. This love of his was everywhere in my house. In his art, but also in pictures of orbs and celestial bodies, mandalas, the Buddhist wheel of life, medicine wheels, neolithic sun crosses–which are circles with a squared cross inside which proceeded Christianity. Halos, spirals, labyrinths, the Taoist yin-yang symbol. And he doodled circles everywhere too. There was not one scrap of paper, or bill, or recipe that didn’t have his circle doodles in the corners: which often were simply a circle with a dot in the middle. Or circles within circles.
I certainly haven’t done an in-depth study of every religion, but those that I have studied all have sacred circles somewhere in them, and I sense my dad knew this. Isn’t that fascinating? The great philosopher William James, who wrote the famous book Variety of Religious Experience, sums up what is universal about a religious feeling by noting that “religious objects and symbols draw upon a common storehouse of human emotions,” and that, “religion is a really a system of symbols that embody the moods and motivations of people in respect to a general order of existence.” Simply put: religious symbols, and mythic symbols, put our minds and hearts in touch with our own humanity, and the humanity of our fellows. Yes, they help articulate the nature of the Divine, God, as well, but the realm of the Sacred also puts our minds and hearts in touch with our own humanity, and the humanity of our fellows. That’s the root of the root of it, as I see it anyways. It’s no surprise that the etymology of the word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin: to bind. Like sinew to bone. To bind us to God, to our own humanity and to the humanity of one another.
And really, if I were to take a guess as to why circles have been drawn across millennia, why they hold that common storehouse of human existence, why my dad seems to have dedicated his life to their depictions, it is because there is no other symbol that embodies wholeness and perfect balance quite like the circle. And yet, it is fluid, it can move, you can follow it around like the rotation of a wheel or a season’s cycle, the orbit of planets, the cycle of life: birth, death, regeneration. An eco-system. It grips the human imagination. The cycle of breath. And when a symbol grips the collective imagination, we need to pay attention to it. Wake up to it. Find ourselves and our fellows in it. I do not think that Widening the CIRCLE of Concern was arrived at simply because it sounded good. Particularly when many of those eight were theologians themselves.
And maybe this feels really abstract to you. Or you are having trouble right now connecting the work of collective liberation or even just the day-to-day care of yourself and your loved ones to all of this talk about religious symbolism and spiritual wholeness…”I’m just trying to get through my day Rev. Sophia! What am I to do with this and your circles?” And what I want to say to you is that now, more than ever, we–all of us humans–need to be cultivating meaningful spiritual practices, engaging in studies, doing healing interior work, finding our way towards a sustaining, expansive theological literacy that meets the moment. I am sorry but we can’t white-knuckle it, or will ourselves into this kind of widened, expansive Divine love. Spiritual wholeness is not something we are going to think our way into. And again, this might sound abstract and impractical to you, but I can promise you that if you commit to deepening your spiritual lives, in the myriad of ways that this means–as you would any urgent, life-threatening matter, for it is, you will begin to widen something in yourself, feel a part of a wide and roomy circle-where there is always a seat open and waiting.
Last week our wonderful worship committee reflected on prayer and what it means to them. I invite you to consider what it means to you as well. That’s a great starting place. Consider where symbolism shows up in your life. What doodles do you draw? Ask yourself if there are symbols that make your skin crawl. Why? Can you trace some of them further back, maybe to ancient eras, find your way into them in a new, widened, expanded way? In a way that speaks to your humanity, or the humanity of your fellows? Can you believe me when I tell you that collective wholeness and a widened circle of concern depends upon this seeking? And reckoning?
And I sense you know this. Isn’t this why you come to church? To deepen and widen and search for meaning and connection in this life? Let us not shut the door on this because it scares us. Or because we can’t find the time.
So, this is a rich theme, right? Next week we are diving even more deeply into it with our Social Action Committee, and we will continue with it through to the end of the month, and quite frankly beyond. In the meantime, go get this report and read it. You can download it off of the UUA’s website. And, in equal balance, look for circles. In poetry, in art, in music, in nature, in spiritual teachings and texts. Share your findings with each other. Start a regular gathering that explores some of this. Reach out to me if you don’t have any idea where to begin. For it is time now to make a beginning. It is time.
And speaking of ‘it is time now.’ You might remember back in September, for our Water Communion service, Lauren shared a song with us. We Shall be Known by MaMuse. And it has become a kind of UU anthem–particularly after Rev. Marta Valentin whose words I shared as our call to worship today–particularly after she centered it in her sermon delivered at General Assembly in Spokane back in 2019, which was all about widening the circle. As a part of the UU the Vote campaign a recording of it was offered by the UUA and it landed right at the time when this commission on appraisal was published. I want to share it with you now. It’s stunning. For it is a reminder that it’s not just us on Church Street–we are a part of a larger religious movement singing It Is Time Now. Let it be a call to action this morning, and also a reminder that all of us, all of us, deserve to thrive and we make, WE MAKE, the ever-widening open circle together, if we choose to. May it be so and amen.
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.