By Rev. Brian J. Kiely September 15,2013
This is the second sermon in a two part series exploring Unitarianism for newcomers.
Reading: I asked people on the UCE Facebook page to respond to my sermon title. The posts below served as our reading.
Bonnie McMillan I am a Unitarian because there are no preconceived notions about anyone that comes to our church. From the first time I walked in the door I was welcomed and felt like I truly belonged. nothing was ever forced upon me or expected of me.
Lauren Kay I second what Bonnie said. Also, it’s a great place to raise a family. It teaches respect for all others.
Rebecca Wheeler First time I walked into a UU church in Chicago (First U), back in ’86, I was really nervous. Looked gothic and all. But then I heard laughter during the service! Human beings! No crosses or dead guys around. And didn’t hear ‘god’ at all. Or when we did, it was in a whole list of possibilities: “god, great spirit, spirit of wonder, mystery, etc. etc.).. Never looked back. Been a UU now for 26 years. And BTW, that’s where I met Brian — at Chicago First U.
Elise Graham Because the one thing I believe with absolute all of my heart is that we are all the same.
Paul Burnell I became a Unitarian because of Brian Kiely, Bill, Evelyn Docia, Audrey… and Jolene’s lentil soup.
Michael Keast Coffee during the service and no god talk… and what other religion gives you a chance to drop a sheet of drywall on your minister?
Alex C Polkovsky I like being in good company.
Peter Scales I was looking for people who would discuss the Big Questions. At my first UU service in Ontario, when I was asked to intro myself I said “I’ve been reading Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason” and I’d like to chat with anyone who has read it.” Eight people, including two who had not read Paine, joined me to discuss that critique of the Bible. I was so happy, and knew that I’d fit in here.
Lance Beswick For me it was a place where I hoped to find a community of people of like mind who didn’t believe any of us needed like minds. And in that my hope was totally fulfilled.
Sharon Ingraham I became a Unitarian because once when I was in hospital, I was watching a program and heard a woman in a church speaking about a “religion” that had no set rules, no creed, no nothing…Once I got out, I drove around Edmonton trying to find such a church (I couldn’t remember what it was called…this was back in the early 90’s I think)…Finally, I found our old building and gave it a try…Strangest thing — have never been able to track the program down. No matter. UU’s are philosophically a-tuned to me and me to them.
A Member: Because of the tension between wanting a church community and needing to maintain intellectual integrity and honesty. At a Unitarian church, there is no tension – no compromise. You don’t have to ever pretend you believe anything that doesn’t actually hold up to logical scrutiny to belong.
For two main reasons, one theological and one dogmatic.
Theologically, I could not reconcile the two conflicting messages of the Christian faith system I was raised in, to wit: God, an infinitely superior being, loves me infinitely, but will send me, a flawed, imperfect, most definitely finite individual, to Hell for simply not accepting a few facts that have never been presented directly to me but only mediated through sources that have proven themselves untrustworthy at best and deliberately manipulative at worst. Not being able to reconcile those conflicting perspectives, I chose the one that made the most sense.
Dogmatically, I prefer a belief system that says I do not have to reject an irrefutable truth that I have found – either through research or revelation, I’m not much bothered – simply because it does not support, or is not supported by, a pre-existing set of conditions.
A lot of people today use the phrase, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”. There is even an acronym among ministers – SBNR. It’s not our favorite phrase, because it tends to refer to people who think organized religion is of little use…but then that’s another whole sermon.
Today I want to talk about why I am a Unitarian. In effect I am saying I am spiritual AND I am religious. Not the most popular thing to say these days, is it?
There are lots of good reasons why people turn away or just ignore religious bodies.
Churches are communally focused…in a society where the people instead worship at the altar of individual liberty. A lot of the voices spoke of the power of community, but it’s not really something that’s ‘cool’ out there.
Churches tend to have defined theologies and doctrines…meaning a lot of fixed ideas and associated rules and teachings, in a society when many prefer, again, the path of freedom in decision making. We don’t much care for being told what to think…about anything…ever!
Finally, churches and organized religion in general are perceived – not always accurately – as being morally conservative if not entirely backward in subjects of sex in general, homosexuality in particular, and well, pretty much any topic that people consider to be fun.
And then there is that awkward history bit. Religion has been involved in some pretty nasty business in the past and even in the present: holy wars, residential schools, the systemic denigration of women, even support of racial and ethnic genocide.
There are a lot of good reasons to not be involved in church. I know… I walked away once.
I abandoned the Catholic church in a huff at the age of 18. I disagreed with their views on sex in general and pre-marital sex in particular. I never expected to go back to church. I didn’t look anywhere else. Then a few years later a girlfriend invited me to her Unitarian Church.
Many people say they feel at home the first minute they walk into a Unitarian church. I didn’t. I wasn’t looking for something new and different. I was keeping my girlfriend happy. I was expecting another church much like the one I had left. I was deeply suspicious and closed to the message. On the other hand I was also carrying an Irish Catholic prejudice against anything protestant. I was in the enemy camp. When you walk through the doors of Unitarianism with a closed mind, the odds against experiencing a hallelujah moment are pretty long.
It took me several visits to realize that this church really was different from what I had known. And it took about two years before I actually joined. The threat of Hell and Excommunication, not to mention the wrath of my Irish aunties weighed heavily on my soul. Leaving their church was one thing, but JOINING felt like an irrevocable step off the cliff that overlooked the fiery furnace. In fact I waited until I moved to another city to formally join a church.
But I made the step. Why?
I have thought about it a lot. A lot of my reasons were said already in one way or another by the Facebook responders. But beyond those specifics I have realized that for me, there was something else at play, something I didn’t really understand: I need church. In the time I was on the outside I didn’t really notice what I was missing, but when I found church again, it flooded into consciousness. I need church.
I have the church gene, I guess.
Belonging to something greater than little old me – matters. I can’t really explain it any better than that. I have a need to be part of a community that worships together, even if we understand that word in many different ways. I need a place where it’s okay to think about concepts of God or an absence of God – about morality and good and evil. These are not fashionable things. Oh people ‘out there’ have strong views, but seldom are those views framed or conceived as a religious understanding. It’s not terribly au courrant to think about why something is right or wrong. It is enough to just “feel” like it’s right or wrong. It is not fashionable to ask what we believe and why we believe it. these concepts are not often found in polite conversation. In church they can be. And I learned that I need to work through why I believe what I believe and why I make my moral judgments the way I do. I need to back up my decisions, I need to justify them, if only for myself.
I think that’s the deeper reason why I am part of a church community. But why a Unitarian? What was it about the Unitarian Church specifically that made it an okay place for me? Well, you have heard most of the good reasons in the many voices section of the service.
When I started listening to those services in Montreal…about the fourth or fifth time I attended and finally began to let down my guard, I learned things I never knew. First I learned that there was more than one religious history of the world. I had grown up in a tightly framed box of Roman Catholic belief, history and teaching. It all fit together neatly and explained everything…if you didn’t ask difficult questions.
My first Unitarian minister, Charles Eddis, showed me that there were other interpretations than the ones I had learned. He showed me that Jesus, for example, lived in a time and place and had a life influenced by events around him. I learned how Christianity had evolved and not simply arrived fully formed like the tablets handed down on Mount Sinai. The Christianity we know today is so very different from the religion Jesus practiced and taught…which was in fact only meant to be a reforming of Judaism. Who knew? I had never even considered that Jesus might be anything other than the Son Of God sent to save us with a new faith. Learning to think of Jesus as a man belonging to his culture and his time was a revelation.
My horizons were broadened in the Unitarian Church. The world of theology and religious history expanded and grew like an old black and white TV show suddenly gaining colour and exploding onto the big screen. I learned that a lot of what Jesus taught was not new, but were lessons from his Jewish teachers. I learned that the Golden Rule exists in every faith, that Jesus wasn’t the first to say “Do unto others…”. Again, who knew?
I learned that every religion wrestles with the same basic questions and comes up with usually similar answers. And I learned that every humanly organized religion screws up their own teachings sometimes, fails to live their beliefs into practice sometimes. Around here, we aren’t afraid to talk about the failures.
And then in an adult UU program, I learned that my ideas had value…my beliefs counted. It wasn’t all set down for me…I got to participate in forming today’s theology. Adult classes were conversations where my thoughts were encouraged, where the session didn’t end with, “The Pope says…” and the correct answer was delivered. I was allowed to speak my beliefs, and my doubts and it was safe to do so. Not everyone agreed with my ideas, but no one said I shouldn’t be having such thoughts and go and pray for God’s guidance and correction.
So there was all this good intellectual theological stuff going on for me and encouraging me to shape my own religious values and beliefs. But that was only part of the story.
What truly cemented my connection to this liberal tradition of ours came a few years later. I was 24 and going through a shattering divorce. My whole young world felt as if it was crumbling, all of my values and certainties were swept away. It felt a little like that Leo DiCaprio film Inception where even the very ground on which you stand is not to be trusted and keeps reforming itself into a different landscape.
In that horrible time, a few church folks kept me sane. They weren’t friends, per se. Mostly they were a generation older than I. They did not intrude nor look down on me. That part mattered most, for I was ashamed at having failed at marriage. People were just nice. They accepted me as I was and walked with me through that very hard year. It wasn’t that they held my hand or anything, but they listened when I needed to talk, accepted my silence when I didn’t, invited me for the odd meal and gave me the space to do what I needed to do. They taught me what being in community really meant.
That was the final piece. That was when I became a Unitarian Universalist heart and soul. It was at the end of that long year…and a half, that I heard the call to ministry.
What I found here was the freedom to work out my beliefs for myself, without fear of being told that I was a bad person for not following the party line. What I found here was the confidence to speak for myself from my own heart. What I found here was an openness to new ideas and a deep conviction that people are essentially good. We see as our mission the challenge of finding ways to affirm others who are different from us, to find ways to learn about their concerns and to sometimes take on their concerns for justice as our own.
And it all takes place in a climate of affirmation, not denigration, of celebration, not shaming. It takes place under an umbrella of intellectual freedom instead of narrowly defined teaching. It takes place in a climate of glorious and joyous uncertainty and a willingness to change our minds when the evidence demands it. This in contrast to places where the fixed and outdated teachings are more important than the discoveries of science or the evolution of human culture and the broadening of human rights.
I need church, as I said.
And, apparently, I need THIS church.
If you are searching for a place where you will be accepted and welcomed,
And accepted as you are and welcomed for who you are,
A place where your personal beliefs will be respected, and sometimes challenged,
And where you are welcome to revise those beliefs in the face of new learning, new evidence and new experience, that you decide are true,
And where you can freely speak your concerns about social justice and perhaps even find support for those views,
And if you are looking for a place where children are also respected for who they are and introduced to ideas and possibilities instead of fixed beliefs,
Then maybe this is the place for you.
And if it takes you one visit, or ten or more, that’s fine.
I suppose that what most defines why I am a Unitarian, is that this is a place where you are free to decide you belong, and where you keep having to make that decision for as long as you choose to be part of this community.
An old ad slogan says it well: :Unitarian Universalism: a religion that puts its faith in you.”