Haunting Church

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Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly host, praise father, son, and Holy Ghost.  Those are the traditional words to the doxology that I grew up singing every Sunday in church.  I still like them better than all the variations that are available in our hymnal.  The choir just did a fabulous medley of them – I think it was a medley and not a mash up, but maybe there is another word.

A religious path can take many twists and turns.  It is a journey that I think never ends but continues for our whole lives and perhaps even beyond death.  Those that believe in reincarnation believe that.  Personally, I am not sure what happens after we die, but I believe that if our souls do live on that they will continue to change and grow, that we will arrive at new and different understandings. Isn’t that part of the definition of living?

But even if our path toward spiritual understanding has no definite end, it has a beginning.  Most of us can remember a time when we had some sense of the divine, of mystery, a time when we began looking for answers, for something that would give our lives meaning, something that would help us make sense of all the chaos, of all the pain and confusion that we saw around us. We may have been struck with awe at something in the natural world; we may have gazed in wonder at the stars or a new born baby’s face.

We all have a religious past, even those of us who did not grow up in any faith tradition.

Just out of curiosity, how many of you here today did not regularly attend religious services before you entered your teens?

In many parts of the country, it would be closer to a majority of the congregation raising their hands in answer to that question.

Most of us here have experienced other faith traditions.  We have memories of them. Some of those memories are good ones, but others might be haunting us in ways we might not even understand.  Particularly for people who were hurt by a religion or by a religious community, anything that reminds them of that can be incredibly painful.  I have heard stories from people whose religious leader mentioned them specifically in a prayer in a way that made them feel sinful and wrong.  Our community prayers might make them nervous as a result of their past.  Others have been judged, shamed, and shunned by their religious community when they expressed disagreement or doubt.  Reciting a congregational covenant, even one so benign as our covenant of right relations, might be upsetting to them. Some people, even though they may have rejected the concept of an angry God, still feel some fear when the word God is used.

How can we honor our diverse religious pasts, care for those among us who have been wounded, and move forward together as a community of love and acceptance?

First, I think we need to acknowledge the pain.  The hurt some of us knew in other communities is real and it was wrong.  There has been abuse, physical and sexual, and perhaps the most damaging of all, spiritual abuse.  Too many times our innocent hopes, dreams, and spiritual yearnings have been shattered by the actions of humans and, yes, by demeaning and damaging theologies.

So, if you have been hurt in any of those ways, please know that it was wrong.  Please know that you are loved just the way you are, by God, and by those who really do try to love their neighbors as themselves.

Please know too, that others here can relate to those feelings and fears.  For myself, I avoided all churches for almost 30 years and even after I found a Unitarian Universalist church, I still freaked out some if God or Jesus were mentioned in the service in a positive way.

I am not in that place anymore.  Part of what I did was to consciously reclaim the good things from the religion I grew up in.  It wasn’t a terribly coercive one in fact, so maybe it was easier for me than it has been or will be for some of you.

I was raised in the First Christian Church, which is now known as the Disciples of Christ after a merger. Interestingly enough this building was originally built to house a congregation of that denomination.  I still get mail sometimes addressed to the pastor of the First Christian Church of Ogden.  Talk about haunted houses!

I was baptized in a font just like the one behind this curtain, saying yes when I was asked if I took Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. But as mainline Christian Churches go, there wasn’t a lot you had to believe in order to belong; no creed but Christ was their motto.  I did not have to worry about the virgin birth or literal interpretations of the Bible.  Sunday school was Bible stories, singing songs like “Yes, Jesus loves me”, and memorizing Bible passages and other things.  We got prizes for doing so. I was the only one in my class to memorize all the books of the Bible in order.  The prize was a small glow-in-the-dark cross. I was very proud of it and kept it by my bed at night.

I left the church in my teen-aged years. One turning point was when some missionaries from the Billy Graham crusade came and showed our youth group a film.  I don’t remember it very well, I know it had cowboys in it and that one of the young men was very troubled, accepted Jesus, and was saved.  After the film, one of the missionaries asked us to come forward if we too were willing to accept Jesus.  No one moved.  I wanted to, I really did, but I had already been baptized, I had already been saved, so what would it mean if I went forward again?  Was the earlier act a lie?  Was I somehow so fundamentally flawed that I needed saving again? It seriously creeped me out and I began drifting away.  Somewhat later, although still in my teens, when I realized I was a lesbian, I knew the church would not accept that part of me. I felt somewhat relieved that I had left before they decided to kick me out.

But as I have grow in my Unitarian Universalist faith, I have reconciled that experience, and come to understand that I also received gifts in my childhood church home, things that were more important than a glow-in-the-dark cross.  I heard of a loving God and a gentle Jesus.  I learned about the quiet comfort of prayer.  I leaned about service to the church as I helped my mother prepare the communion that we shared each Sunday.  Grape juice and unsalted crackers, tiny little cups and paper doilies, it represented the Holy and once baptized, I too was allowed to participate. We washed all the little cups afterward by hand.  It felt like important work.  I think it was.

It is also important work to reclaim the good things in your personal religious history.  Yes, acknowledge the bad things, the things that moved you to leave.  Those were real.   You can feel good about your decision to try something different, just as you can feel good about sticking with your childhood faith if that is what you have done.

Cherish your doubts as it said in the responsive reading that Gabriel led us in this morning.  Doubt will help us walk in the light of growing knowledge and understanding.

But cherish your history as well because if nothing else it has brought you to where you are today.

Two weeks ago, two members of this congregation, Renee and Mary, shared with us what they learned from growing up Catholic.

It was the first of what will be a series where our members share what they have learned by growing up in different faith traditions.  I want to include those who grew up Unitarian Universalist and also those who grew up without any faith.  There is only one rule.  You can’t say anything bad about your prior faith.  That was the charge we gave to Mary and to Renee, and I think we all learned something from their words.  I suspect they learned something as well.

If you think you might want to participate, to speak to us all about your childhood faith please talk to me or to one of the worship associates.  It is OK if you still have some unresolved issues because speaking of the positives can be a way to begin some healing of old wounds.

So I love the doxology again, although I have reinterpreted it in a way that makes it even more meaningful to me.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  Praise the sun, the rain, and the snow, praise the night and the day, praise the mountains and the sea, praise the desert and the plains, and praise all that is, has been and will ever be.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, praise mother, daughter, friend and foe.  Praise all who live and breathe.

And the words of one of our hymns speak to me, “Come spirit come, our hearts control, our spirits long to be made whole, Let inward love guide every deed, by this we worship and are freed.”

They remind me of the yearning I felt as a young teen, standing in the back of a sanctuary, one not unlike this one, wondering if I dared go forward, wondering if I could possibly be worthy, my spirit was longing to be made whole.

During the offering time, as you light a candle, drop a stone in the water, or just sit quietly, I invite you to reflect some on your own religious history.  Acknowledge the bad if there has been hurt there, but also try to see what good you might have put aside in order to avoid pain, things that could still have positive meaning for you.

Our closing hymn will be about laying some of the burdens we carry down.  The song makes me feel like dancing.  I hope it does the same for you.

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