Different Beliefs, One Faith: Our Open Spirit

“So you’re a preacher,” he said. It was late, about 9:30, in Chicago and it was cold, the January wind tearing at my jacket. I was standing on a train platform waiting for my two-hour commute back to northern Indiana where I lived. I told him that I was a seminary student and yes, I was a “preacher”. “How about that,” he said, “a man of God.” I didn’t have the heart to clarify just what kind of God he thought I might be a man of. But then again, it didn’t matter. “Just great, just great,” he said, “I’ve always admired a man of the cloth.” He continued, “Just found Jesus myself,” he said. I shifted, not sure if my discomfort was with the wind or where this conversation was going. My new found friend went on in great detail: he was a bricklayer, was on this third wife, had six children and was finally in AA. As he explained his conversion I couldn’t help but notice the sound of contentment in his voice, it was almost contagious. That was a difficult year for me: I was struggling over my new identity, with the death of a close friend and with this expansive faith of ours which required such a broad knowledge. I yearned, I admit, for a simple faith, perhaps the comfort of Jesus.

As we boarded the train together, he naturally sat down right next to me He pulled out a well worn copy of the bible and recited his favorite passage from the Gospel of John, “No one shall come onto the father but through me.” I knew that for him this meant that he was already in the arms of a loving God. That in the end, with all his troubles, he would be all right. I have come in the many years since this encounter to feel and know what it is about a simple faith in Jesus that is so refreshing and comforting: If you believe you are saved than there is nothing this world can do to you to hurt you more than for a moment. This kind of faith is not about reason, it’s about feelings. Many of us don’t understand this allure.

But this man understood. He was quite sure of his own salvation. And equally worried about his sister’s soul. She was a Muslim. “What about you, Reverend? What church do you belong to?” he asked. “I’m a Unitarian Universalist,” I replied, trying to let the 10 syllables fall out of my mouth slowly. He was quiet for a moment trying to recall where he had heard that before. Then the gleam of recognition, “Oh yeah, I got a friend who is into the Unity stuff – real spiritual.” Alas, we fall again to the arrows of misrecognition. I started to explain the difference, but his stop had arrived and he thanked me and got off.

Perhaps just as well. I would rather have him leave with that warmth. Many days have passed since that cold night. Many more sermons, deaths, births and doubts and I am still before you, a humble servant of the spirit, searching as you are for that faith which will sustain us; the faith of a community like ours with so many different beliefs. I thought often of his description of us as “real spiritual”. For most of our 500-year history, we wouldn’t be accused of that. Although all of that is changing, and changing fast.

Unitarian Universalism is actually the merging of two streams of faith. The Unitarians and the Universalists. The Unitarians have historically believed that God is one; in all people and that the concept of the trinity, that is the father, son and the Holy Ghost, has no basis in reason. This Unity of Experience based on a reason was proposed as early as 325 C.E. by a Bishop named Arius who was condemned for heresy. Our reasonable approach to religion laid dormant for almost 1,000 years until the idea of only One God resurfaced in Eastern Europe, Transylvania to be exact. Francis David, under the emerging protestant reformation and a lenient monarchy, established the first Unitarian churches in the world which stand, despite centuries of persecution, to this day. Their altars proclaim “God is One” and in all people, their teachings proclaim that Jesus came to love us all. Many of our American churches have partner relationships with these poorer and ancient churches in Eastern Europe. Unitarianism traveled across Europe to Britain and then to the United States and found a welcome home in the Congregationalist churches of New England because the congregation could decide on its own beliefs. This is the basis for our fierce congregational polity: the people, that is, all of you, decide the future of our course. As the most recent issue of our denominational magazine The World (Fall 2008) explains, ours is a “covenantal theology”, we are united not so much by common belief as by caring of one another. Protecting our freedom of belief. And with our relational approach to religion came another very unique institution: The free pulpit. We have a free pulpit meaning that I am free to speak the truth in love as I see it. Our flame in this chalice burns for that truth which we seek openly and together.

We are by our nature a faith of heretics. Heresy only means those who disagree with the orthodox. Unitarian’s bedrock lies in three beliefs: One, that religion needs to make some sense; this is why for instance our beliefs cannot deny the truths of science. Two, our beliefs have to fit our experience of the world. And three, we are open to hearing and exploring other religions and ways to the spirit.

What this means is that we have amongst us people who have a strong faith in God, some who would consider themselves Christians, others who would consider themselves Buddhists, some who don’t believe in God, many of us have doubts about God, pagans, earth worshipers and the just plain curious. We are unique on the religious landscape in that as Unitarian Universalists we do not require you to subscribe to any doctrine or creed – just to come, and in reason and experience, explore the possible Unity of the Divine.

If our Unitarian heritage appeals more to our minds, then our Universalist heritage appeals more to our hearts. Historically, Universalists have believed that we are all saved by a loving God. While the Unitarians cry “God is One” Universalists altars, some even to this day, in the firelands of Ohio declare, “God is Love”. Since the time of Origien in the 4th century, we have had a strong belief in the gnosis – or knowledge of God’s love. Early Universalists said that if Jesus died for our sins, he did so for all of us, for all time. Hell was just not the burning issue that it is for many other orthodox religions. All go to heaven; why would a loving Abba, Aramaic for Daddy, as Jesus claimed in his saying, condemn any of us to everlasting hell. This idea also had its roots in Eastern Europe and traveled through an underground church founded by Jon Hus using a simple chalice, the communion of God, which he gave to each person, before it was reserved only for the priests. The common chalice, God’s love available to all, is the bottom part of this symbol we light each Sunday. The chalice for God’s loving embrace is our Universalist heritage; the flame for the search for God’s spirit is the flame of truth within it. Universalists have been historically much more emotionally charged than their Unitarian cousins. With that emotion, came a love for music, dancing and heartfelt preaching. Your minister, stands before you as a fourth generation Unitarian but a strong Universalist. I believe with all my heart that we have some good and openly freeing news for the world…The Spirit is ours to find, hold and celebrate, even if we can’t all agree on what it means.

The Unitarians and the Universalists came together in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations of which this one is a part. It’s a proud and wonderful heritage. Like hubs to a wheel we gather to search for that way to inner meaning using both heart and mind. Our way of religion is open and free and it is not for everybody. Some misunderstand our open spirit as meaning we can belief whatever we want. This is not true. Our WAY of discovery is open, our END of discovery is personal, but the COMMUNITY of searchers that we are is united by principles and practices that provide for open exchange and safety. Not everything goes in a UU church like ours: there are limits. We do not permit hurtful behavior; we put a limit on the espousal of abuse, hatred and exclusion. We are not, as I am fond of saying, the ACLU. We are a religion and while we are an open religion we stand for something.

What do we believe as Unitarian Universalists? What is this one faith that unites our different beliefs? Throughout this church year, starting in two weeks, I will speak on each of these seven Principles. In our new Family service, which begins in three weeks, Renée and I will be engaging our young people in these Principles. What are they?

We believe in the free and responsible search for meaning. We tend to the free part openly but we sometimes have a little trouble with the responsible part. Being responsible means that we say what we believe but in love. The truth can sometimes hurt when we are not sensitive to others. I can remember a congregational meeting that we had many years ago in which someone said that if this congregation has anything to do with Christians they were leaving. Ouch! What about those of us who still find meaning in the Christian story? I thought Barack Obama modeled this brilliantly on Thursday evening in his acceptance speech. “…..one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other’s character and each other’s patriotism.” In other words we can disagree with each other without challenging our character or our faith.

We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We do matter as being on this Earth in our potential and our worth. However, while we are all worthy – even those who commit terrible atrocities – our actions may not be worthy of being here. As I have said hurtful behavior cannot be permitted. But we also belief in redemption and grace. Throughout the month of September we will be exploring this theme of redemption and recovery. Many of us have been victimized, our religion needs to help us overcome that hurt and grow.

We believe in justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Our Social Action Committee works hard on our behalf to join with others in our community to stand up for the poor and the disenfranchised. I have spent many years in community action. Unitarian Universalists work around the world through our own UU Service Committee and our office at the United Nations to secure justice.

We believe in the right of conscience and the use of democratic process. We can and should speak our minds in love and we have a right to our opinion. We also have the right to choose our direction as a Congregation. Our newest members join the heart of this Congregation and have both the right and the responsibility to serve on our committees and vote in our meetings. We do not take orders from high. Being a part of this democracy – and you are all a part in some way – also means we support our mission financially. We are completely self-supporting. We want and need your help in however much you can afford to continue to spread this good news. That is just a fact of life.

We believe in the goal of world peace and justice. Unlike many other religions that focus on the hereafter, we focus on the here and now. Part of our mission is to change the world for the better. WE can do this. It will take generations to do, but every little act of kindness does change the world in some way. Our services throughout the month of August have been devoted to peace, starting with ourselves.

We believe in a respect for the interdependent web of all existence. We do believe in the unity of the divine in all existence. We do believe that we are all connected in a great circle of life. And we do believe that what affects one affects all. Each breath we take has the same molecule of a Cleopatra, Caesar, Socrates, Jesus, Buddha or a Mother Theresa. This same breath extends to our own rich prophets: Emerson, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Charles Darwin, Mary Wright Edelman. WE are connected in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.

Finally, and I saved this for last on purpose, we believe in the acceptance and encouragement of spiritual growth. “Real Spiritual” describes us more and more. Some may not like that description, but first and foremost what we are about here is a spiritual journey. Your spiritual journey. By spirit I do not mean so mushy gushy idea of something out there, but rather a call to “in here.” I believe that most of us are called to discover that abiding truth in us. I believe we are put on this planet for a reason, even if we don’t know what that reason is. I believe that our search is mystical in that we may have moments of revelation but we will be hard pressed to find “the answer;” and when we do, we will realize along with Lao Tzu, that “that which can be named is not the true name”. But the point is that my wayfaring friend on the train was not so different than any of us. WE too seek answers and while perhaps this tradition says it will be hard to find THE answer, we will be able to journey together and find more meaning to life than we would without each other. More meaning. More understanding. More strength to carry on.

This is why we join together as a community of seekers: to learn from each other, to sense and perhaps live out a destiny. To comfort one another when there are no answers to life’s tragedies and to know that in the final analysis we are not alone. Either with a God or just each other we are not alone. Einstein once said, “that no problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it”. It’s a perplexing statement until you realize that it is both mystical and profoundly scientific. This is how Einstein figured out his theory of relativity. To use a sixties parlance, “he got out of his own head”. You can’t always see the forest for the trees. You can’t always see what is Holy when you are a part of that holiness. But when you break it out and share with others and listen and consider with reason and experience another consciousness whether through words, prayer, music or meditation THEN you can see what you didn’t see before. That, my friends, are why we are here. That is the one faith that is ours.

Our open spirit allows us to consider new ways, new ideas, a new path to meaning in our lives. And we can do that together better than we can do it apart. WE are the process religion. More process than product.

Next Sunday during our “Homecoming Service” we will recognize some of our newest members. If you have been coming over the summer and consider this your spiritual home, this would be a good Sunday to sign the membership book and enter the center of our circle. Let me be the first to say welcome to the next stage of our open spiritual journey. In my study I have a quote from a little known feminist – and a great Unitarian – that has sustained many a long night when I have grappled to what to say to you who are searching or to someone who is hurting. Edith Hunter, a pioneer in religious education recognized that as open spirits we had no firm, easy or pat answers. We needed something more realistic to deal with a complex and hurting

“Perhaps we should realize that our need is not to find “something to believe in” but rather to discover what we believe in right now. This is the place to start.”

This is the place to start. Let’s get started. Blessings Be!

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