What Do I Say, After I Say, "I'm a Unitarian Universalist?"

A Service and Sermon by Barbara Wells
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church
November 14, 1999

Opening Words: The Unitarian Universalist Principles and Sources

 Reading #1: "You May Be A Unitarian Universalist If…"
(from an anonymous e-mail sent to me by a UU friend)

* You may be a Unitarian Universalist if…

…you think socks are too formal for a Summer service.

…even your goldfish gets to vote on family TV viewing choices.

…you consider Charlie Brown & Dilbert to be spiritual leaders.

…you know at least 5 ways to say Happy holidays!

…your Christmas tree has 7 symbols on its top.

…unleavened bread is part of your Easter Brunch.

…you find yourself lighting a chalice before brushing your teeth.

…if when you watch Jaws you root for the shark. ("Hey, sharks have to eat too!")

…belly-dancing has ever been part of a Sunday service.

…on Hallowe'en you explain to everyone the Pagan significance of their costumes.

…you consider Groucho, Harpo & Chico to be the "Holy Trinity."

…the "X-Files" is a regular source of your church's sermons.

…you consider Millard Fillmore one of the greatest U.S. Presidents. (He was Unitarian).

…you think "Whatever" is a valid theological point.


Reading #2:

Who are these UU's, standing around the coffee table on Sunday mornings, discussing last night's movie and next Fall's election; reviewing the morning's sermon, designing tomorrow's educations, storming over next century's oceans? [They are] Joyful celebrants of the gift of life, mixing nonsense with the quest of the ages, turning secular need into concerned action, serving wine on the lawn and petitions in the foyer!

by Betty Mills, UU layperson, from Our Chosen Faith by Church and Buehrens


Song: "Let The Mystery Be" (by Iris DeMent)


Sermon: What Do I Say, After I Say, "I'm a Unitarian Universalist"?
by Barbara Wells

All my life people have been asking me what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. Often, I have used other's words, like the ones that came to me on e-mail, to describe it. Other times, I have used songs, like Iris DeMent's marvelous reminder to "let the mystery be." But most of the time, I, like you, have had to struggle to come up with my own words to describe this faith I have spent a life time committed to-and I can assure you it hasn't always been easy.

For Unitarian Universalism is a different kind of religion, and how we talk about it will thus reflect these differences. This morning I hope to share with you some ideas that have emerged for me over the last decade, ideas which have helped me to better share my religion with others.

In three weeks, on Dec. 5, we are asking you to consider bringing friends to join us in our morning worship. While these "Bring-a-Friend Sundays" are quite common in UU churches, they can still strike terror in the hearts of many. Despite the fact that over and over again we hear people tell us, "I sure wish I'd learned about UUism sooner," many of us are reluctant to tell people about our church. Yet churches grow most (and best) when people bring their friends. But how to talk to our friends about UUism can be daunting. Hence this sermon which I hope will help.

Let me begin then by telling you a story. Once upon a time, you, or someone like you started coming to church. Perhaps you had been away from church for a long time. Perhaps you found yourself hungry for some unnamed something that was missing in your life. Perhaps your child began asking questions you couldn't answer without the answer sticking in your throat.

Perhaps you went back to the church of your childhood but found that you no longer belonged there. Searching for a place to belong, you made your way to a Unitarian Universalist church. Perhaps this one, perhaps another. Entering into this place, or one like it, perhaps you found yourself feeling peculiarly comfortable, energized by the ideas, warmed by the hearts of the people around you, encouraged by the commitment you saw to values not unlike your own. Perhaps you even felt like you had "come home" and began coming regularly and getting involved.

Now our story heads toward its critical moment. One day, at your office, or at a dinner party, or at coffee with friends, it slips out that after all these years, you are going back to church. One of your friends or co-workers asks you, "I don't know much about Unitarian Universalism. What is it you believe?" The fateful question has come. You may stumble, blush, stammer out a few words about what you don't believe. Make a joke or two about it. Then you may give up. Your friends give you a look that makes you feel two feet tall. And you come back to this church you find so meaningful, hoping someone like me will help you come up with a better answer that you can give the next time.

Does this story sound familiar? If it doesn't yet, I imagine that you will find yourself in such a position at some time. Unitarian Universalism is a difficult religion to explain if you approach it from the same perspective as traditional religions. What I hope to do today is to give you some tools that might make talking about this faith of ours a bit easier.

Before I do, however, I must own up to my own situation. Unlike most of you (if this congregation is statistically like most UU churches) I am a born and bred UU. For the entire thirty nine years of my life, I have found my religious home within this faith. That does not, however, make me immune to the difficulties presented in my story. I, too, have struggled with language to describe the deeply felt convictions I hold in my heart. I, too, have been known to tell others first what I don't believe, instead of focusing on the positive aspects of my religion. I, too, have felt that awkwardness when faced with someone proclaiming firm convictions of the conservative or fundamentalist variety, who cannot understand my faith that is filled with ambiguity and diversity. I imagine that an evolving faith, as ours is and I trust always will be, brings with it the possibility of faltering words, changing viewpoints, open-ended questions and answers. The challenge before us is to creatively find a means to capture our religious values and beliefs in words and symbols that others (and we) can understand.

One way you can begin thinking about this is related to belief. Most people, including many of us, I expect, equate religion with belief. This is not unusual. Many religious traditions are based on belief: belief in a particular kind of deity; belief in a ritual, such as baptism, as a means for salvation; belief in a book or books as the only word of God; belief in a creed that specifies exactly what you must assert as true in order to belong or be saved… Beliefs are important, and all of us have beliefs that we hold dear and that help us live our lives. But belief is not the collective identity of what our religion is about.

Many of you may not realize it, but the root of the word religion comes from the same root that gives us the word "ligament." What's a ligament? It's the part of our body that ties our muscles to our bones. So what's a religion? It's that which ties us together. Religion is not a word that equates necessarily with belief. Rather it means something more like "that which binds us together."

For some religious people, beliefs are what bind them together. But for Unitarian Universalists, what binds us together is not belief but rather our perspective, or our attitude toward life. Where others see their religion as based on a particular set of beliefs, our religion begins with a set of affirmations about life, about the universe, about humankind. Our principles and sources state these affirmations quite beautifully, and that is why I asked you to read them this morning. Unitarian Universalism begins with the deep seated conviction that human life is valuable. We do not set people apart into groups of saved and unsaved, but rather affirm the dignity and worth of all people.

With this perspective, we are compelled to treat others with compassion and to work for justice for all people. With this world view-which may for some of us be based in a belief that the spirit of God loves all people, or in a belief that there is a spark of divinity in all people, or in the simple truth that goodness can dwell in every human heart)-with this world view we cannot easily dismiss the "other" as less than human, and are thus challenged to live with others in peace and as much harmony as we can muster.

And our principles remind us that we see the world as interconnected. The earth, the stars, the universe are not separate from us, they are us. As seekers of truth, we have let the wisdom of scientists and philosophers teach us the deep reality of existence that we, and all living creatures, even inanimate life, are made of the same stuff. We are indeed the stuff of stars, and our religion honors this interconnectedness.

This perspective from which our religion finds its source, is simple yet also complex. Let me take a few moments to dig a bit deeper, and offer you three responses you might give to your friends, after you say, "I'm a Unitarian Universalist."

The first question your friend might ask you is, "What Bible or religious text do you believe in?" This question has to do with the source of our religious faith. We list six of these sources alongside the principles, because they are enormously helpful in reminding ourselves of the depth and breadth of our religious tradition. These sources include scripture but they also include our own experience and the experience of others as a guide to truth. One hymn-writer over a century ago perhaps said it best when he wrote:

"Lo, that word abideth ever, revelation is not sealed; answering now to our endeavor, truth and right are still revealed."

Truth and right are still revealed. In other words, while what others have written and said over generations is important and may be valid to our current understanding, there is always more to learn. And what we are learning may take the form of revelation in the most spiritual meaning of that term.

Let me give you an example of this kind of revelation. When the first astronauts orbited the earth, they saw the earth in a way that no one had ever seen it before. That picture of earth floating delicately in space, was a revelation to many. It has only been in this generation, however, that that image was available to us. Yet what a difference it has made! Many of us who are committed to protecting our earth home feel this way in part because of the deeply religious image of the earth seen from space. That revelation cannot be found in any scripture yet its effect is profound and, I hope, lasting.

So when, at that mythical dinner party when your friend asks you about Unitarian Universalism, perhaps you might say this. "For us, when it comes to religion, the book is open. As an evolving species on an evolving earth, we are committed, as religious people, to continue learning, to continue seeking, and to accept new revelation that is bound to come. We find revelation in books, in people, even in photographs, for the holy can touch our spirits in ways we may never have dreamed."

The next question we are asked may sound something like this: "I understand UUs can believe anything they want. Is that true?" This question, believe it or not, has to do with heresy. I love telling people that I am proud to be a heretic, though it has been known to take a few by surprise. Heresy, in many people's minds, conjures pictures of those who would not accept orthodoxy and tradition. Well, we certainly fit historically into that category. Our spiritual ancestors were those who questioned, who challenged, who listened first to the inner voice within calling them to what they saw to be the truth. This image of heresy is important, and I challenge you to learn more about the many heretics who make up our religious history. Today, however, I want you to think of heresy in this way.

The word "heresy" derives from a Greek word that means "able to choose." Able to choose-this is a very important aspect of our faith. If, as I said earlier, we operate out of the assumption that revelation is not sealed, then we have the possibility and the responsibility to choose our religious beliefs as they are revealed to us. Yes, people say of us that we can believe anything we want but this is not true. Unitarian Universalists believe what we have to believe, what our senses, our learning, our earth, our communities and our wise people teach us we must believe. We could choose to believe the earth is flat but that would be against what we have learned to be true. So we choose instead to believe what we know to be true: that the earth is round and that we are a part of its life.

So when your companion over coffee asks you that difficult question, another response could be: "We espouse a religion that honors our responsibility and capabilities to choose. Because we know that others, too, must do their own choosing, we value diversity and try to embody a loving acceptance of life's differences. We take responsibility for our religious choices and change them if new knowledge or understanding deem it appropriate. We are heretics, yes, but heretics who believe that the holy is found not in conformity, but in the wide diversity that makes life and our living it so wonderful and rich."

Your friend is not quite satisfied, and asks further: "If your church affirms that revelation can come from many sources, and that you must responsibly choose what you will believe, what holds you together? Do you have a basic belief that undergirds your religious life?" This is a very important question, but one that has, I believe, a simple answer.

Unitarian Universalism is built on a foundation that can be stated like this: We believe and live as if life, indeed all existence, matters. As living creatures, we have been blessed with the greatest gift of all. We did not ask for it, we do not deserve it, yet it is ours to make something with. Life matters not because people alone matter, it matters for itself alone. And because it matters, we find ourselves living life in a way that enables us to make the most of this great gift.

We do this by learning, by choosing, and by giving thanks. We do this by recognizing that our lives, while valuable, are no more or less valuable than the life of any other person. We do this by honoring the life of our mother earth, not just human life. We do this by truly living in this world. While we may have varying opinions about the possibility of life beyond death, our faith teaches us that it is in this life that we can make a difference.

The price tag for this great gift of life is death. Forrester Church, one of our most thoughtful Unitarian Universalist ministers, reminds us that religion is our response to the dual reality of being born and having to die. Throughout our lives we will struggle to understand the meaning of both. But if we live as if life matters we can face death with the certainty that while we lived we did the best we could. And then we can "let the mystery be" about what comes next.

The party is over and your friend turns to go. Perhaps you have not converted her to your faith. After all, that was not your intent. She may be happy in her own church. Or maybe she is thinking, "Your faith is not like mine, but, boy, have you got faith!" or maybe, just maybe, she asks to go to church with you and you say, "Wonderful! I'll see you there."

Unitarian Universalism is a faith that for many of us uplifts and sustains us through the fullness of our lives. It is my hope that you will find acceptance in this place; that you will feel encouraged to listen to what your heart is teaching you; that you will feel challenged to accept the choices you must make along your journey through life; and that you will feel blessed by the gift of life, and live your life alongside others as if they and you, and the whole of creation matter.

For you do, we do, it does. Let us take a moment in silence to give thanks for this great gift.


Song #128: "For All That Is Our Life"


Closing Words:

Let us give thanks and praise for the faith which has sustained our ancestors and which sustains us today. May we reach out to each other in fellowship and love, even as we let the mystery be what it will be. And may this circle of kinship open to include all those who seek to celebrate the spirit of life, and live as if it really matters. Because it does.

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