I wonder what my life
Would have been
If the path was less clear
If the trail had disappeared
Under a carpet of dead leaves
Dusty my feet got
Rubbed me the wrong way
Still the trail called me
All I could do was follow
Never quite knowing
Where it would end
From space it must have seemed
A wandering with no plan
I ended up here.
I woke to the rain
The soft sound of weeping
They say that tears heal
That they water the soul.
And maybe that’s true,
I hope that it is.
But when the wind howls with fury
And the hail pelts down hard
I wonder how grief
Can turn into flowers
Sometimes in spring.
When will we know how
To fix this big mess?
Will the hungry be fed
And the homeless find shelter?
When will the children go home?
I am tired
I am angry
I weep with the planet
And I rage with the wind.
God, grant me wisdom.
Love, give me courage.
Let’s drink all that water
So we don’t drown in the flood
Let’s start with a responsive reading. Please turn to #650 in the back of the gray hymnal. Your part is in Italics.
Cherish your Doubts, by Robert T. Weston
Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the handmaiden of truth.
Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery.
A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error,
for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.
Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.
Let no one fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it;
for doubt is a testing of belief.
The truth stands boldly and unafraid; it is not shaken by the testing;
For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure.
Those that would silence doubt is filled with fear;
their houses are built on shifting sands.
But those who fear not doubt, and know its use are founded on rock.
They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge;
the work of their hands shall endure.
Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help:
It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the handmaiden of truth.
I’ve always loved that reading. It helps keep me from being too sure of myself; from thinking I have all the answers. Sorry to say, not one of us has all the answers, which is why we are called to continually engage in our 4thprinciple, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Curiosity is an essential part of the practice of our faith. We are the type of people that just have to sample the fruit from the tree of knowledge.
Bonnie Withers, in Owning Your Religious Path,says that(Many) “Unitarian Universalists come into the denomination from other religions; often there have been several stops along the path into our congregations. Some bring with them angry and unresolved feelings about experiences in other religious institutions, others have warm memories. Some move easily into an identity as a Unitarian Universalist; others experience a traumatic estrangement from family and from the center of their culture.
We can be most fully and completely present in our religious identity when we see our path as a continuum rather than a series of unrelated episodes. Because we are usually more certain of what we left in another religion than what we bring forward from it, (it can help to) establish connections, bridges, and resonances between (our) past and present.”
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 also find ourselves arriving at new and different understandings.
But even if our path toward spiritual understanding has no definite end, it usually 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 may even have experienced that within the walls of a religious institution.
We all have a religious past, even those of us who did not grow up in any faith tradition.
Just out of curiosity, which is the monthly theme after all, how many of you here today did not regularly attend religious services before you entered your teens?
How many of you grew up UU? Jewish? Liberal Christian? Catholic? Conservative Christian, including Mormon? Other religions?
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.
If our worship service includes a prayer, it might make them nervous as a result of that past.
Others have been judged, shamed, and shunned by their religious community when they expressed disagreement or doubt. 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 if you believe in 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, 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 part of the Disciples of Christ. I was baptized by full immersion at around age 8 and said 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. I got a prize once, of a small plastic glow in the dark cross. I loved it!
I left the church in my teen-aged years, shortly after the experience I spoke of earlier. I had questions, doubts. Was I somehow so fundamentally flawed that I needed saving more than once? 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 grown into 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 much 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.
I loved the singing, and I still love to hear the old songs, even though they do not express my current theology. Milton will be playing a couple of them later in the service.
They are happy songs to me, songs about being loved and held.
If you can reclaim some of the good things from your personal religious history you might just find them comforting. If you grew up Catholic you might find lighting candles particularly meaningful. Be curious about why. What do you like about our worship services that resonates with the positives from your religious past. What feels like it might be missing? Do you yearn for silence, for prayer, for shouting, for incense, for bells, for calling out amen or hallelujah during the sermon? We are all different, with different histories, and I wonder sometimes, I am curious about, whether we can, as a congregation, tolerate a wider diversity of worship styles.
Our current worship practices are not tied to our Unitarian Universalist theology so much as they are to the white, upper class, New England culture of the early Unitarian Church. The Universalists were not nearly so heady, being mainly farmers and working folks.
For those of you who left behind a religion that caused you pain, 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 earlier responsive reading. Doubt will help us move into 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.
When I served our congregation in Ogden Utah we had a lay sermon series where our church members shared about what they learned from their childhood faith tradition. It included those who grew up Unitarian Universalist and also those who grew up without any faith at all. There was only one rule. They could not say anything bad about their prior faith. Those that participated found that speaking about the positives was a good way to begin healing from old wounds.
Those of us who listened learned not only about the people who were speaking, but it gave us ideas about what we might want to do differently as a congregation, both in worship, and in our social justice work.
Our hearts can be in a Holy Place, and we can be like that lone wild bird, held by the spirit in a way that is beyond words. “Great Spirit come and rest in me.”
Those words remind me of the yearning I felt as a young teen, standing in the back of a sanctuary, wondering if I dared go forward, wondering if I could possibly be worthy, because my spirit really was longing to be made whole.
And now, I know, deep in my heart, that this faith tells me we are already whole. This religion is an expansive one with plenty of room for our yearnings, for our curiosity, our doubts, and for what feeds our spirits.
During the offering time, if you come up to light a candle or if you 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. Be curious about it.
Our closing hymn will be about laying some of the burdens we carry down. That song always makes me feel like dancing. I hope it does the same for you. Amen and blessed be.
This is an old poem – from April 2013 – before I began this blog. I have been reborn, oh so many times, it seems.
I laid my body down
On the brittle brown leaves
Crushing them to dust
Exhausted by the Fall
My ears touched the earth
Soft loam of older leaves
Quiet wrapped my worries
In stillness and in peace
My arms held the sun
Warm in the moment of embrace
Clouds passed in the distance
Memories of the cold
For months I lay in wonder
Wrapped in the breath of hope
Stirrings deep within
Had time to be reborn
Now I rise to my feet
Strong and steady is the call
Once more the path is open
My eyes behold the sky
I never really related
To Job and his wailing
He was so self-righteous
A lucky man
For much of his life
Thinking he deserved it.
So much better I think
To receive blessings later in life
When you can appreciate them
And know in your gut
How lucky you are.
Homer said that Odysseus
Angered a God
Which is why
His journey was so long
He started as a prince
A wealthy man
But had trouble going home.
I think that’s right
I never read the poem.
Maybe it’s hard to start so high
That falling is a surprise.
I wouldn’t know.
That’s not my story.
I began in chaos,
My journey a hope-filled climb
As ever brighter vistas
Granted blessings on my way.
Sure, there have been dips and valleys
Times I’ve tripped and fallen.
But the trail keeps going higher
Where the sun has dared to shine.
Courage my companion
As love has been my guide.
On this stairway into heaven
A heaven here and now.
Maybe later too.
This has been enough.
I am rising like a Phoenix
From old ashes once again
Life has so many valleys
Deep dungeons of despair
Perhaps you saw me there.
Or did you glimpse me on a mountaintop
Where sunlight kissed the highest peaks
I laughed and forged a pathway
Through the storms
Rising like a Phoenix once again
One more transformation
Shedding weights that held me down
So blessed to be reborn
Once more to dance with wisdom
Swimming in that river of mystery
Where grace awaits us all.
This month’s worship theme is on covenant. A covenant is essentially a promise, but it is a deeper and more faithful promise than an ordinary one. It is not easy or thoughtless.
Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher that lived in 400 BCE is quoted as saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
I am not sure that I completely agree with him on that. Life, all life, has value. There are animals that do not have a capacity for self-reflection, but their lives are worth living. Those of you who have shared your lives with special animal friends know this to be true.
But Socrates’ point is a good one. Because we have thecapacity to examine our lives, it can be a waste to simply live them without ever thinking about their meaning.
The 20thcentury Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams took Socrates’ statement in a different direction. He said:
“An unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident. A faith worth having is faith worth discussing and testing…
No authority, including the authority of individual conviction, is rightly exempt from discussion and criticism.”
Adams was also pretty blunt when he said:
“The free person does not live by an unexamined faith. To do so is to worship an idol whittled out and made into a fetish. . . . the faith that cannot be discussed is a form of tyranny.” (Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers 1986, 48).
An unexamined faith is not worth having.
So how do we, as Unitarian Universalists, examine our faith? How do we examine our lives and learn how to follow a principled path, one that makes us feel more alive and one that can help us make a positive difference for our world?
We don’t have a common creed, a set of particular beliefs. As individuals, we have many different ideas about God, and we have a wide variety of opinions about almost everything.
We do have some things, however, that we have agreed upon. Anyone want to hazard a guess as to what those things are?
Yes, we have our seven principles.
In case you can’t remember them, they are listed in the front of the grey hymnal. It might be useful to turn to them. Note the words at the beginning, “we the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote.”
The UU Congregation of Marin is one of those member congregations. We have, as a religious institution, covenanted, or promised, to affirm and promote the seven principles.
Some people consider our seven principles a creed. Many of us when we first read them, said, “That is exactly what I believe!” I did that.
But let’s examine those principles. Note that the introductory line doesn’t say “we believe.” It says that we covenant – that we promise to affirm and promote those seven things. As Unitarian Universalists, we make promises; promises to do things. The seven principles of Unitarian Universalism are not statements of belief, but rather constitute an action plan that we try to follow both as congregations and as individuals. Action plans! Don’t you love it?
What is your favorite principle? Call it out!
The majority of Unitarian Universalists are most strongly drawn to either to our first principle or to our seventh. They are certainly the most often quoted in sermons and in conversations when you are trying to explain to someone what Unitarian Universalism is all about.
And while people can certainly have favorite principles, I believe it is also important to examine them together.
Our first principle uplifts the rights of the individual and asks us to respect everyone’s inherent worth and dignity. The seventh principle, respect for the interconnected web, asks us to remember than we are all part of something much larger than ourselves.
(Holding up hands) The first principle is about the individual and the seventh is about community. Individual – community. How do we hold those two in balance? We can sometimes struggle with the tension between those two principles. I know I did as a supervisor and as a new Unitarian Universalist. I had to weigh the needs and problems of an individual employees with the needs of both the larger work team and the mission we were charged with accomplishing.
The tension between these two principles can also surface within our churches.
How does a congregation respond to an individual whose behavior is truly disruptive, maybe someone who makes racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic or sexist comments? If we can’t find a way to call them back into covenant and remind them of our first principle, what do we do?
Do we ignore it, or do we find ways to encourage them to change their behavior so that we can create the warm and welcoming religious community we all want and need?
Being welcoming to all does not necessarily mean being welcoming to all types of behavior.
Sometimes the balance has to shift from the individual toward the interconnected web, or community side of the equation. It is never simple. This isn’t an easy faith.
Sometimes it can feel like there is an inherent conflict between our first and seventh principles. Maybe we should just choose one and be done with it.
It gets easier if you consider them in relationship with each other.
Isn’t part of respecting someone’s worth and dignity letting them know when they are doing something that diminishes or damages another person or group of people? Sometimes it is more respectful to speak the truth and offer the possibility of change, than simply saying, “Oh, that’s just the way they are; they always do that.”
Similarly, the seventh principle respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part is about a lot more than respecting the environment.
It says we are all connected. It says every individual with all of their inherent worth and dignity is connected to every other individual.
Sometimes we forget that we have seven principles, not just two, and that they are all interrelated. The first and seventh principles are like bookends, and we need to take the time to read the books as well.
What’s in the middle of the bookshelf? What is our 4th principle? It is OK to look it up.
Bingo. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning is the correct answer.
I would argue that the 4thprinciple is the most important one and that the other 6 lead us there, supporting us on the path of examining our lives and our faith.
Our second principle, justice, equity and compassion in human relations points to the sixth, the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
The second principle is about how we promise to treat individuals, while the sixth is what that means on a larger scale. It is the same as the relationship between the 1stand seventh. Individual — community.
The second and sixth also define the goals or mission that follow from the first and seventh principles: positive and respectful relationships between all people and all nations.
The third principle is acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations and the fifth is the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
Those two contain some of the specifics of the action plan. Accept one another, encourage spiritual growth, respect the right of conscience and use the democratic process when making decisions.
They tell us what to do as we engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
Free (one hand) Responsible (other hand)
Individual – Community
Our principles contain the essence of dramatic tension. Everyone who wants to live ethically, in right relationship to other people and to the world, to examine their life and their faith, struggles with contradictions. How do we search for truth and meaning? How do we discover the meaning of our lives and what we are called to do with them?
Today is Epiphany in the Christian tradition. One definition of epiphany is a, usually sudden, perception of the essential nature or meaning of something. As we examine our faith and our lives, sometimes we are looking for an epiphany, an understanding that will help lead us on our life’s journey.
But how can we begin that search for truth and meaning?
The Buddha sat beneath a tree waiting for enlightenment. Moses climbed a mountain. Jesus went into the wilderness. They were seeking truth and meaning, wondering what their lives were really about, what their “action plan” should be.
Haven’t we all experienced that feeling? We wonder why we are here, if our life has any purpose, any meaning beyond whatever societal success we might attain or not. What is the point?
Does it really matter what we do and how we live?
To find the answers to those questions, we have to go deep, very deep, inside of ourselves. We have to look in the mirror and see our whole selves, our failings as well as our gifts. Who am I? Why am I here? What am I called to do?
Who are you? Why are you here?
What will you do with your one wild and precious life, as the poet Mary Oliver asks?
Sitting with those feelings can be scary.
Fear has so many dimensions: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of ridicule, fear of power, fear of the unknown.
But while we are sitting beneath the tree, while we are wandering in the metaphorical desert, while we are drawing in whatever wisdom we can find, we also need to be turning ourselves inside out, and finding a path into the world.
The Buddha did not stay beneath his tree, he was called by the suffering he saw around him to go back into the world. Moses came down from the mountain to lead his people to the Promised Land. Jesus came back from the desert and began casting out demons and healing the sick. Harriet Tubman went back down south to free more slaves.
Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
There is a place, deep within each of us, that knows what will make us come alive. We can follow a principled path.
I will end with these words by Leslie Becknell:
“What kind of case could be made to convict you of full-fledged whole-hearted Unitarian Universalism? What do you do when life calls on you to live out your principles? When someone’s opinion is different than yours. When someone at the committee meeting interrupts and goes off on a tangent. When your beloved doesn’t take out the trash. . . . When you request that your employer make a policy change. When you are living your life every day.
I won’t challenge you to memorize the principles. I invite you to learn them by heart and be willing to back them up with the life you lead”
From: “Learning the Principles by Heart” Leslie Becknell
Amen and blessed be
Unitarian Universalism is an embodied faith; our theology proclaims that all our bodies are sacred and beautiful, and that our physical selves matter. Our faith is demanding; we are called to stretch ourselves and to be transformed.
For much of my life, I have lived in my head and my heart, and my body was mostly a vehicle for getting things done. It was also a source of pleasure. Among other physical pleasures, I have enjoyed bubble baths, soft kittens, and delicious food. I spent time caring for my mind by studying, reading, and learning. I also tended to my heart and soul, through prayer and by opening the pathways of empathy and compassion, even when it was difficult. Despite my theology about the importance of the body, however, I mostly simply used it, ignoring what it might need to stay healthy.
I gained weight slowly over the years, and in some ways relished being fat. In my large female body, I felt like I projected a safe presence, and the hugs I gave congregants seemed to be received as nurturing rather than sexual or threatening. I did always ask before hugging someone new, however; prior trauma can be so easily triggered by touch. I was largely happy with my “earth-mother” image of myself. I did not enjoy squeezing myself into airplane seats, or enduring the indignities and judgements that society places upon fat people, but I loved myself and my body, just as it was. My dear wife also loved me, no matter what size I was.
But I forgot that my body needed my care and attention, and that just as my heart, brain, and spirit needed exercise to stay healthy, so did my body. I forgot that this faith demands a wholeness of mind, spirit, and body. I forgot these words of the 16th century Unitarian, Michael Servetus:
“It is necessary to care for the body if we wish the spirit to function normally.”
Last year, I got a wake-up call, a revelation if you will. My health had begun to deteriorate, so much so that I had to leave a ministry earlier than planned. Most of my health issues were made worse by the amount of weight I was carrying. I knew this was true this time, despite the years of doctors implying that my weight was the cause of what were completely unrelated problems. I realized that if I was going to have a decent quality of life ever again, if I was going to be able to continue to work for justice, I needed to lose some serious weight. Exercise wasn’t going to be enough; my body and I needed both physical and spiritual rehabilitation if we were going to survive.
I had never seriously dieted before and was very suspicious of the diet industry. To me, it symbolized both capitalism and misogyny, the policing and sexualizing of women’s bodies for profit and control. One can be healthy at any size; I still believe that, but it wasn’t true for me, at least not any more.
I signed up for a medically supervised weight loss program through my health plan. It isn’t easy, and has required intense concentration and focus, but the weight is coming off. It is hard, but it is what I need. I am learning to tend my body in the same sorts of careful and attentive ways that I have always cared for my heart, my mind, and my soul and spirit. My body is so much more than a vehicle; it is my home. I have no regrets about my past habits, but it was time for me to go home. I needed a revelation to really understand that our minds, bodies, and souls are deeply interwoven, and that only when they work together can we live to our full potential. Sometimes we need revelations – sometimes we need two, or three, or twenty-three. I am so glad that revelation is not sealed!
How many candles do we need to light?
Will there be enough wax
To hold the slender wicks of all our prayers?
How many tears do we need to shed
To cause the ocean to overflow
With the torrents of our grief?
I want to light a candle
For every single soul
For the children
For the elders
For all those at risk
For all those who are targeted
For who they are
Or what they believe
I want to light a candle
For all those who have not survived
Can our candles burn any brighter
With their fierce and furious love?
Can the molten wax we create
Burn through a world of hate
Of greed and blatant disregard
Of all that makes life holy?
Our prayers can flow like lava
Erupting through the darkening sky
Angel wings can beat within our hearts
Soaring high in the warming air.
So many candles of love we have
Lit by an eternal flame.