Church! What Is It Good For?
Prelude: Closer to Fine – Indigo Girls
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains
There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line…
Let our church be a gift from each of us to the other.
But even more let it be a gift from each of us to our community.
Let us be a gathering place for the spirit, a refuge for hope, a beacon of inspiration, and a dynamo of life and justice for all.
Let faithful community be the ground of commitment and action to enrich the world.
For me the essence of Unitarian Universalism is the responsible search for my personal spiritual truth in a loving and supportive community that values that search. The analogy I use is the campfire or hearth. When the cold, existential winds of the uncaring universe blew hard and bitter, it was all that was between our ancestors and the outer darkness. But it was enough, and they thrived. It was the center of life. Children heard the stories of the people from the elders. How to find food was discussed. Strangers were welcomed around the flame. We learned to take care of the weak and infirm, the young and helpless, but also that if everyone did not tend the fire and fetch the wood, that there was no survival. For me our Chalice symbolizes that flame that was the center of community. Today, it is the center of where I find, explore and celebrate my own spiritual truth and continue to grow as a person of faith.
From Bob Hurst, First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City
Song: Come, Come Whoever You Are (5 times)
Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
Ours is no caravan of despair.
Come, yet again, come
Seven Promises (Responsive Reading):
Let us create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths,
for we honor minds that question, hearts that love and hands that serve.
Let us live lightly on the Earth, beginning with our church community,
for we respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Let us embrace others both near and far in hope and compassion,
for we lift up the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.
Let us remember that everyone bears responsibility for the health of our congregation,
for we affirm the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.
Let us remain open to new ideas, knowing that we need not be afraid of change,
for we trust in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
Let us respect individual religious paths, even those we do not understand,
for we aspire to accept one another and to encourage spiritual growth.
Story for All Ages: Alexis De Tocqueville on Democracy
Offering and Response (Unison)
For the gifts which we have received — and the gifts which we, ourselves, are — may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world:
to increase love and justice;
to decrease hatred and oppression;
to expand beloved community;
to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.
Sermon: Church – What Is It Good For?
The announcement for this service had a link to a post from UU World by Doug Muder, who has been a long-time friend of mine on-line, back to the days when there was an email discussion list, UUS-L, in the mid-90s. The chalice lighting this morning was written by Bob Hurst, another friend on that list. That on-line group was more of a congregation to me for a long time than my physical congregation in Austin. Doug said
“When our values are threatened, a congregation is an anchor against despair.”
Many times my UU faith has been an anchor against despair, and my congregation a place where I could reaffirm I was not alone in beliefs that didn’t seem to be shared, or were actively condemned, by the culture around me.
I grew up in a small West Virginia town, in a mainstream and liberal Baptist church, where the message was almost always about loving your neighbor and how to live, not on salvation and damnation. But by the time I was 12 or 13, I had ideas and beliefs that weren’t acceptable there, or among my school friends. I believed and thought things that, although I hadn’t made them up, but had gotten them from my family and from reading, were shocking to them. There have been few times and places in my life since then that I could say what I think and believe about many things without framing them carefully. The UU churches and groups I have belonged to have been places I could say what I think and get honest discussion rather than condemnation.
As a new congregation, we are always asking ourselves “Why are we here? What should we be doing? What does being a church mean? What can we do that meets not only the needs of those of us who are gathered already, but those who are like us and haven’t found us yet?” And “what on earth does ‘those who are like us’ mean?” “What do UUs have in common?” So I’m going to talk about what church is good for, and what UUs have in common, and reaching out to those who have that in common but haven’t found us yet.
Why do we come to church? What does church offer to people? What do UU congregations in particular offer to people?
Research shows people who go to church are happier, healthier, and better members of their communities. As it turns out, these effects have no relation to particular beliefs – any group that fits the IRS definition of “church” – which includes any group, Christian or not – that meets regularly for worship – synagogues and temples, Buddhist, Hindu, pagan, Native American congregations – has these benefits, and the amount of good it does you has no relation to how strongly you believe. But it also turns out that it does depend on one other variable – whether you have friends at church. People who are believers of some religion, even strong believers, aren’t happier, healthier, or better people than non-believers, if they don’t attend a congregation. And people who just attend services, no matter how faithfully, aren’t either.
So – two things are required – that we gather to worship, and that we do that with people with whom we have deeper connections. I think that is because we need more than just the inspiration of a good service – we need people to talk things over with, people who inspire us by their example in daily life, and people who are close enough to give us honest feedback.
I belong to the Buddhist group Tricycle, which sends an email quote every day. One morning, it was
It is important to have strong spiritual friendships – not spiritual in the rarefied sense, but in a really down-to-earth way, to have good friends in the dharma with whom you can talk things over, share experiences, share difficulties and whose spiritual support you’re assured of.
We need to do that in a setting that is specifically focused on meaning, values, ethics, and truth-seeking, but also include worship. I have had UUs challenge me that we don’t have a God to worship – but the word comes from the Old English worth-ship “worthiness, acknowledgment of worth”. Worship is the celebration of that which is worthy, by whatever name we call it.
Many UUs also have trouble with “spirit” and “spiritual” – but what is spirit but breath? Spirit is there in respiration and inspiration, even in perspiration – the invisible but tangible and necessary, not at all supernatural.
What do UUs worship? That which is worthy
Van Ogden Vogt, who was, among other things, minister of First Unitarian, Chicago, began his book The Primacy of Worship:
All religions have three necessities: faith, morals, and celebrations. All must have a system of ideas, a system of ethics, a system for realizing the joy of salvation.
He quotes Emerson, who is, as you might expect, more poetic:
The universe has three children, born at one time, which reappear under different names in every system of thought. These stand respectively for the love of truth, for the love of good, and for the love of beauty. These three are equal. Each is that which he is essentially so that he cannot be surmounted or analyzed, and each of these three has the power of the others latent in him, and his own parent.
As Emerson points out, different systems have different names, or metaphors, for these necessities, and for many of their aspects. Sometimes we believe that we have nothing in common, or are even opposed, because different people use different names or metaphors.
Five fingers pointing at the moon
I read the other day that the five great world religions are “five fingers pointing at the moon”. This comes from the Buddhist tradition – “All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the finger will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty.”
Wujin Chang, a nun, asked the Sixth Zen patriarch, Hui Neng, for help in understanding the Mahanirvana Sutra. The master answered that he could not read, but if the nun would read it aloud for him, he would do his best to help her. The nun then asked, “If you can’t even read the words, how can you understand the truth behind them?”
“Truth and words are unrelated. Truth can be compared to the moon,” answered Hui Neng, pointing to the moon with his finger, “And words can be compared to a finger. I can use my finger to point out the moon, but my finger is not the moon, and you don’t need my finger in order to be able to see the moon.”
Or, as Alfred Korzybski famously said, “The map is not the territory.” Anthropologist Gregory Bateson used an example of a culture that believes that common colds are transmitted by evil spirits, that those spirits fly out of you when you sneeze, can pass from one person to another when they are inhaled or when both handle the same objects,could be just as effective a “map” for public health as one that substituted microbes for spirits.
All religions, philosophies like humanism, agnosticism, atheism, and indeed most of our thoughts, are maps, or collections of metaphors, for reality. Most reformations and sects have been trying to correct for people mistaking the instructions for the reality. Some people, and whole branches of some religions, mistake the finger for the moon, but that doesn’t mean that all the fingers pointing are wrong. Sometimes, no instructions are needed, and the full moon is perfectly visible. Sometimes, a sliver of a new moon in the clouds is not so obvious, and directions are helpful.
The direction of the finger depend on where you are standing. We also use the metaphor of many paths leading to the top of the mountain. Which path is best depends on which valley you start in, but – not all paths go to the top, or even up the mountain at all. Most religions and philosophies insist that their path is the best for everyone, and are unwilling to draw insights from other traditions, or understand their metaphors.
I have been reading recently a book called Buddhism Plain and Simple”, by Steve Hagen. He says
We’ve all heard the expression “seeing is believing”. But the fact is that believing is not true seeing. In fact, they’re opposites. Belief is at best an educated, informed conjecture about Reality. In contrast, seeing –raw, direct, unadulterated experience – is the perception of Reality itself.
[For example] suppose I were to come up to you, hold out my closed fist, and tell you I have a jewel in it. I might be lying or telling the truth….As long as my hand is closed you don’t know, you can only believe. Only when I open my fist can you see whether there is a jewel in it or not – and when I open it the need for belief vanishes – you can see for yourself, and you can base your actions on what you see.
I think the unique strength of Unitarian Universalism is that UUs are willing to look at many maps, paths, and metaphors, and try to put together a broader picture – but to go beyond belief in the maps and metaphors, to seeing them as what they are, instruments to help us see.
What UUs have in common are our Principles and our Sources
We grew from deep roots in Christianity, the Unitarians deciding that the main threads of Christianity, like some threads of Buddhism, Judaism, and indeed almost every religion and many individuals in each of them, had mistaken the finger for the moon – worshiping Jesus as God, rather than listening to his teachings. The Protestant Reformation, had rejected the idea that rituals like baptism and communion were actually effective and necessary for salvation, rather than symbolic acts to remind us of the path. The Universalists rejected the doctrine of violent redemption, the idea that had grown up that God was so angry with the wickedness of people that only the bloody sacrifice of his son could appease him.
Two centuries later, both had come to share both views, and had moved on to triangulating the moon from all the fingers pointing. At our merger in 1963, the first six of our Principles were what the Unitarians and Universalists agreed to as what congregations joining the Association would affirm and promote. They are not a creed that members must subscribe to, but a statement of our commonality. The first five Sources and the Seventh Principle were added in the first review in the early 1980s, acknowledging what we had been doing for several generations, drawing from our own experience and many different sources of wisdom, and the sixth source was added in 1995.
So, our living tradition draws from many sources:
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love;
- Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
- Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
First principle, first source
I want to talk a bit about on our First Principle and our First Source in particular.
“Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”
In my life as a UU I think we have often not paid as much attention to this source, and have gone far beyond the Protestants in throwing out even symbolic ritual, and any references to mystery, wonder, awe and spirit. I had a UU co-worker who often quoted Garrison Kiellor on UUs being “God’s frozen people”. We are sometime afraid that acknowledging mystery is the same as believing in the supernatural, that using the power of symbolism and ritual will take us over the edge into superstition, mistaking the finger for the moon, that standing in awe of the design of the Universe will lead us to believing in a Designer who is the scary and toxic vengeful God. But scientists as much as the religious are driven by trying to understand mysteries, by fascination with the design which has developed and evolved. We are all in need of renewing of our spirits, the breath of life and driving force that keeps us going through bad times, and in expressing our gratitude for the good times and the beauty and wonder around us.
There is much criticism and discussion of the Principles – one major one is that they are trite and obvious, and things that “everyone believes”. The Principles are compatible with the beliefs of all the world religions, because they distill much, but not all, of the best fingers pointing at the moon, but they are not universally believed by all the branches.
The First Principle is “the inherent worth and dignity of every human being”. Not all religions proceed from this principle. Most but not all of Christianity, for example, proceeds from the inherent worthlessness of humanity, and the principle that only belief in Jesus and the grace of God redeems us.
Namaste, the Hindu greeting that means “the Divine in me acknowledges the Divine in you”, and the Quaker “Light within”, which William Penn referred to as the first principle of the Friends, specifically acknowledge the inherent worth of each of us. But most of the society around us is shaped by the ideas of redemptive violence.
We live in a society today which has been shaped by that idea – that people are more likely to be possessed of evil than of good, and must be threatened by damnation, and redeemed by violence. Even most liberal faiths are still grounded in that metaphor, and it means that we blame the victim, construct systems to counteract what is seen as the natural wickedness of people. The story of de Toqueville we heard earlier didn’t say much about American religion, but it did talk about his insight that Americans believed that everyone could succeed by their own efforts,
So what we as UU communities offer is a place where we try to see the sacred in everyone, where we, like Mr. Rogers, love you just the way you are, try to understand your metaphors and experience, and hold open the possibility that anyone, even ourselves, might be the Messiah, might have a teaching or an insight that will be our salvation.
Our West Fork mission is
Be a beacon and a refuge for all
Grow in spirit
Touch our community
We come to church to be part of a community which encourages us to grow spiritually, to examine our lives, to be inspired, to hold up that which is worthy. Who else who is not currently part of our community needs encouragement, inspiration, worship, and an opportunity to put their values into action beyond their daily individual lives? Those who are “like us” are those who know that the finger is not the moon, the map is not the territory, want to learn to look at many maps, and who know or suspect that love and not judgment, coercion, and violence is the path. Those who are “like us” may see better through different metaphors – I find Buddhist metaphors more helpful than the Christian ones I was brought up with, others find the structure of pagan gods and goddesses, or an all-loving Christian God, more helpful. We mustn’t mistake others’ maps for their territory, either. When our community helps us to center on what is truly worthwhile, to treat everyone with respect, to examine and live our principles, we make friends here, and the people we know who are looking for a loving community that is broader than others will come in. Each of us, individually and together, becomes a beacon, and touches our larger community.
Let us join in our next song, “This Little Light of Mine.” I like this because each of us does have a little light – not a big light, as in the Truth with a capital T, but a bit of our discovered truth to share, but all of those little lights shining can light the world.
Song: This Little Light of Mine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine
Everywhere I go
Everything I do
Joys and Sorrows
If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.
For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.
These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.
Song: Go Now In Peace (3 times)
Go now in peace
Go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go