"Born Again" Unitarian Universalists?

A service by Jaco B. ten Hove
February 29, 2004

READING INTRO (follows Hymn #379):

Even with "one life, one beauty on the earth," "the poems of all tongues" can make for quite a variety of approaches to issues of religion. As complicated as things get around traditional religious language for Unitarian Universalists, we often enjoy unusual angles on familiar themes, such as heaven. The following story poem is converted from a song, "Heaven on Earth," by David Roth, a fabulous folksinger/song-writer with numerous albums to his credit, and a sister who’s a UU minister.

HEAVEN ON EARTH (c)1990 David Roth

The scene was one morning, about 10 AM,
In a conference room somewhere in space.
One by one all the celestials dropped in
Until all of the host was in place.
Refreshments were offered, some white fluffy cake
And a kettle of warm steamy milk,
Everything served up on porcelain plates
On a table of linen and silk.

"May I bring this meeting to order" was heard
And all turned to the head of the room.
"I welcome you all to this high-level council
We've plenty of work to resume..."

A steno stood up with a pad in one hand
And announced the agenda in rhyme:
"There's the matter of buckling Orion's belt
And of cleaning the Milky Way's grime,
And someone's donated two huge pearly gates
And they're stirring up quite the big fuss,
For to make matters worse now, the Salvation Army
Has given the damn things to us.
But firstly and foremost, this special assembly
Has holy intention and worth,
For we're gathered together to work out the plan
For the placement of Heaven on Earth."

A poet took the podium and offered a prayer
"Where our vision falls short, may we see,
May we do all we can to insure that all beings
Will be the Blessed they can be."
Two nurses continued by pleading for peace,
"And for gentleness," Joan of Arc beamed,
And the good Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Said a prayer for all those who had dreamed.

"The floor is now open, the research committee
Will render their statements and notes,
And when we've heard all the proposals
Then everyone makes their decision and votes."

So one by one cherubs were stating their cases,
Saying Heaven should be here or there.
Some lobbied for down in the deepest of oceans
Some argued for up in the air.

But when all was concluded it was quite apparent
That this was a point on which few could agree.
'Twas no simple matter deciding just where
This Dominion of Heaven should be.

At last in the silence a small voice was heard
From a humble and timorous man.
"My name's Murray Goldberg, I'm still on probation,
But I think that I got a good plan.

It seems I've been spending my lifetimes alone
In my search for my soul and my source,
And I've shunned the distraction of my fellow beings
For the fear that they'd throw me off course.
Yet when I get together with one or more others
There's nothing that feels so divine;
To be in communion with sisters and brothers
Must surely be Heaven's design.
So how 'bout we scrap all the blueprints and plans
And instead we install it by parts,
And we put a large portion of Heaven deep down
In the corner of everyone's heart."

Again there was silence, and then an explosion,
Unanimous beating of wings and of legs,
And the meeting had gone through the night to the dawn
So St. Benedict started some eggs.
Harriet Tubman went off for her train,
St. Bernard went off walking his dog.
"I'm takin' a couple of tablets," says Moses,
While Murray was simply agog.
But from that moment forward the issue was passed,
With a permanent home by decree
Where two or more beings are gathered in love,
Here the Realm of all Heaven shall be.

"Born Again" Unitarian Universalists?

A semon by Jaco B. ten Hove — PBUUC — Feb. 29, 2004

Perhaps you’ve seen the UU t-shirts and sweatshirts that have emblazoned on their fronts either of a couple rather wordy but intriguing designs: our denominational Principles and Purposes, or a list of Famous Unitarian Universalists. It is always heartening to me to see people wearing them; they are good reminders of what we stand for and who we are. (The shirt with a whole lot of famous UU names has at the bottom of the list: "…and ME!")

Well, there's another silk-screened shirt that also makes the rounds in UU circles, maybe not quite as often as those two, but I can usually count on seeing at least one of them at our annual General Assembly in June or at other large gatherings. Its message is much shorter, suggesting only that the wearer is a "Born Again Unitarian Universalist."

Now, it's possible that this idea of being a "Born Again" UU is a joke—you know, the juxtaposition of two paradoxical ideas, ha ha. And, like the idea of "Heaven on Earth" coming from Murray Goldberg, the label "Born Again UU" can get attention with a grin.

But on the chance that this is also a serious comment on the power of one's sentiments toward our religion, let me explore beneath the merely humorous surface. What might actually qualify one to be a "born-again UU"? Some sort of liberal religious conversion experience? Maybe, maybe not (which would be a classic UU response).

William James in his formative book, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," describes two types of spirituality, without judging one to be better or worse than the other. He calls them "once born" and "twice born."

For those who are "once born," religion comes easy in life. It is a straightforward path, clearly illuminated, consistent with one's history. For these good folk, their religion always makes sense and works. It stabilizes their lives and links them with their faith community—past, present and future. They only need to be "once born."

My spouse and co-minister, Barbara, and I were each raised in the fullness of UU religious education, but we took somewhat different routes into the ministry. She looks back at herself as a member of this "once born" group when she was entering seminary (not long after graduating high school and college). She knew what she wanted and felt completely confirmed in her religious momentum, carrying a strong bundle of continuous heritage and personal direction into theological school. She expected all that to hold true on the arc and compass of her career.

What happened for her in those three challenging years propelled her into the second group, what William James would call, "twice born." In the cauldron of seminary, her faith was questioned in profound ways; she faltered, doubted, waxed and waned, and was forced to recast her self-image as she developed a different context for her life and her life's work. Some seminarians go through this kind of a crucible and find they must walk away from the career path. Barbara came out with a deeper faith in herself and in UUism. She was then, "twice born."

But I wouldn't limit this process to two incarnations. I suspect many of us are "born again" and again and again, as we grow into our maturing selves, as we shed skins that had become too tight and brittle, as we find ourselves in new settings that bring different satisfactions, and different challenges.

I can see in my own story a chapter in which I became a "born-again UU." While Barbara never wandered from the UU fold, I, on the other hand, was very happy to leave the church I grew up in when I graduated from high school. (In fact, I was very happy to leave the whole town—my state, my parents, you name it. I was ready to move out and about in a big way.)

I had been very active in the youth group, but the minister there was quite, shall we say, unsympathetic to young people, and most of the adults just patronized me and my mighty idealism, so I had no use for them. I was gone. I began a 10-year stretch during which I stayed away from UU churches (although I didn’t land anywhere else, religiously, either).

For a while I was still quite involved in the UU summer camp that felt like more of a home to me than anywhere. (I was especially involved with the worship services that happened almost every night at camp.) But church? Well, I barely even bothered to peek in the door of one during all my extensive traveling in that peripatetic young adult period. (I have significant regrets about this chapter of disconnection, but there it is.)

Then, after about a decade of wandering, literally and figuratively, a camp friend of mine who was living near me in Denver started attending the UU Church of (nearby) Boulder, and talked me into coming with him one Sunday. The meeting room they have there in that building reminded me of the bridge on the Starship Enterprise (of "Star Trek" fame), and all I could think was, "Wow! What a great place to do a service."

So we made a proposal to do just that. We got the go-ahead and spent months cooking up a multi-media event on the theme of Balance, which was very much on my mind those days (and ever since, really). We choreographed a slide show, skits, live and pre-recorded musical selections, etc., etc., and ended up doing the service both there and at another nearby congregation, to pretty good reviews. It was a lot of work, and we were anything but smooth, but I found I enjoyed being with and stimulating other UUs in church.

Shortly after this gratifying experience, I moved back to my hometown in New Jersey, to return to college, and I did peek into that same church I had so eagerly left behind a decade earlier. I reconnected there and, with somewhat tempered idealism, I fit in pretty well. (One cool thing was being able to call all my parents’ friends by their first names!) I soon found myself as the youth group advisor and on the Lay Services Committee. I was a "born-again UU."

Both Barbara’s and my evolutions into a deeper commitment to our faith community were not conversion experiences, per se. We did not suddenly ascribe to some belief that was new to us, or that altered our worldview dramatically. Rather, we struggled with the meaning of our lives and made a course correction. We emerged with new illumination, recognizing what was most authentically ours.

Perhaps you have enacted something of a similar drama in your own journey. Or maybe you're in the midst of it now, or anticipating it. The degree of drama is not important, really, only that somehow you moved toward a new relationship with Life and with this curious religion, a relationship that once wasn't there or that used to be significantly different.

Maybe, if you were raised UU, like me and Barbara, and wandered away for a while, like me, now you're back because you recognize that these roots have value for you…

Maybe you joined our movement when you were an older youth, drawn in by a friend, say, and suddenly you discovered a place where you could belong without doing religious things that felt inauthentic;

Perhaps you found UUism as a young adult, when you recognized the rarity of a setting that actually encouraged both your free-thinking and your religious growth…

Or you were married by a UU minister and intrigued by his or her approach to religion…

Or perhaps as a young parent, you wanted to offer your children a religious education that wouldn't scare them or crush their openness to all the world's wisdom, and you recognized a part of your family ideals in the UU idea…

Perhaps when your kids grew up and away, you still wanted to be around young people occasionally…

Or maybe when someone close to you died, you went to and appreciated a UU memorial service…

Or you had a mid-life crisis of faith and suddenly old handles didn't open the right doors anymore…

Or perhaps as an elder, facing some isolation in this culture, you were led here, and a sense of recognition washed over your tired feet, and you relaxed into the arms of a loving community that honored you and your continuing religious rebellion…

Perhaps during any of these moments your encounters with UUism reflected back to you a piece of yourself, and you realized how good it felt to be so connected.

In all these ways and more, in your own inimitable stories, at some point you came to recognize something about UUism and its activities that has meaning for you. And I agree with you! For over 400 years around the world our religion has offered a significant religious message and people have located themselves in it, one way or another—born once, twice, or again and again—often not by conversion, but by recognition.

But ours is not an easy faith that says simply, "Believe this doctrine, and you are saved forever." Sure that's enticing, but, for whatever reason, UUs are usually unsatisfied by traditional explanations presented by traditional religious authorities as, say, the god's truth. We are skeptics and mystics, seekers and speakers with our own minds, unchained and untamed.

No wonder we have difficulty organizing ourselves at times. Even coming to agreement on the UU Principles and Purposes Statement was a daunting, if eventually inspiring process. A religious movement like ours is full of spiritual rebels who also bring their great talents and their curious quirks, so we should expect some interactive problems and not run away from them.

I like Theodore Rubin’s explanation of this process. He says:

"The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem."

We are an intriguing bunch, drawn by the freedom of our liberal religion, stimulated by its possibilities and inspired by its value, even as we might be challenged by some of its process. But if you recognized anything of yourself in my survey of the life moments when people might discover their affinity with UUism, then you probably belong among us. And let me ask you this: "What might your life be like if this religious alternative didn't exist for you and the many others who anchor themselves herein?"

Where would you go for the religious freedom, the stimulation, the inspiration, even the challenges that force us to grow? I suspect if some elements of this American culture had their way, we would be put out of business tomorrow. But no, we will continue to stand up for the inherent worth and dignity of every person and for the diversity of all life. These are important and contemporary religious values, but how many other churches are taking such stands?

Religion is actually becoming an ever more visible part of American and global culture in this new millennium. Our liberal alternative will likely be continually threatened and maligned but we must not wilt in the heat of inevitable friction. Unless we are destined to be just a social club with high walls protecting ourselves from the mainstream, we must engage with and counter the forces of narrow-mindedness and exclusion, especially when they claim an ultimate religious authority.

This may well be a guiding purpose for us in the years ahead. I hope that later generations of UUs can look back at this dynamic era in America and say with pride that their church stood against the diminishment of human and planetary community, that we were creatively dedicated to affirming life in all its diversity. We must not be passive about this, or drain our collective energy with unproductive infighting.

Liberal religion has a great task in front of it, and we need all our voices to send a resounding call back at those who would deny the fullness of life, even with its complications. There is much demanded of us in the issues of our day, and all of us can rise to the challenge of finding unity amid diversity. As Frances Dávid, the 16th century Unitarian leader in Transylvania, said, "We need not think alike to love alike."

Ours is not a boring journey, at least. Painful frustrations may accompany us, but the power of our connectedness is a great thing to behold. If you have recognized enough of your values reflected in UUism, I invite you to dedicate or rededicate yourself to furthering its cause, which then becomes even more of your own. Like most of life, you will get out of your religion in proportion to what you put into it.

You know, I never like it when people remind me about that—"You'll get out of it what you put into it." But darn if it ain't the truth. And I believe it, not by conversion, but by recognition!

I also believe that finding things to say YES to is the best path to follow in life. It’s simple, it’s powerful, it’s personal, it’s positive. Many of you are here because you’ve discovered that saying YES to Paint Branch, to Unitarian Universalism, is a worthy activity. And huzzah for that!

One of my favorite hymns embodies this posture magnificently: #6, Just as Long as I Have Breath…


The scene was one morning about 10 AM
In a Meeting House, right here and now,
As a group of terrestrials gathered to share
In the mystery, struggle and pow’r.

This is Leap Day—a fine day to be "born again,"
And say YES to life, love and truth.
May the Poems of All Tongues tell us how it is done
As we exhale and finally let looth.

But since we get out of all this what we put in,
Let’s pause once more ere we part
So the Spirit of Life may arise now in song
From the corner of everyone’s heart.

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