Beckoning, believing, belonging

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A Reflection in response to the “Whose Are We” Initiative of the UUMA

9 October, 2011

Rev. Lisa Ward

One balmy day in the South Pacific, a navy ship spied smoke coming from one of three huts on an uncharted island. Upon arriving at the shore they were met by a shipwreck survivor. He said, "I'm so glad you're here! I've been alone on this island for more than five years!"
The captain replied, "If you're all alone on the island why do I see THREE huts."
The survivor said, "Oh. Well, I live in one, and go to church in another."
"What about the THIRD hut?" asked the captain.
"That's where I USED to go to church."1
I can tell by your response that some of you identify with the survivor’s faith journey. In fact, it is pretty safe to assume, in a Unitarian Universalist Community, that most of you know what it’s like to have journeyed within one faith understanding only to have found yourself venturing into another way of being and believing.

This is, in fact, part of the fabric of our UU heritage. “Our particular history”, Rev. Jane Rzepka reminds us, “features generations and generations of people who seem first to lose their religion, and then, by means of private struggle and personal risk, find new ways of being religious.”2

This is true for UU clergy as well, even those of us who were born and bred Unitarian Universalist. Because we are not a creedal faith, the center of gravity can shift as our experiences inform us. Thus, the common question, “what do you believe?” can many into self doubt and defensiveness. This creedal question, which assumes a religion which is to be believed, does not readily describe this covenantal religion which is to be lived.
Now, this does not mean that we have no beliefs, it just means that the telling of our faith emerges differently with each response. We invite seekers into the presence of our faith which then gains a new way of expressing it. For the center of gravity, the mystical core from which all Unitarian Universalist faith flows is a mystery and a marvel beyond any one naming….but I get ahead of myself.
There have been many contributions to the description of Unitarian Universalism. Ed Schempp, a layperson, offered a powerful definition some decades ago that resonates. Let me give you a taste:
“Unitarian Universalism is cooperation with a universe that created us; it is celebration of life; it is being in love with goodness and justice; it is a sense of humor about absolutes.

Unitarian Universalism is faith in people, hope for tomorrow’s child, confidence in a continuity that spans all time. It looks not to a perfect heaven, but toward a good earth. It is respectful of the past, but not limited to it. It is trust in growing and conspiracy with change. It is spiritual responsibility for a moral tomorrow.”3

Within the last decade, and in response to our sound-byte marketing age, attempts at definitions have been met with the challenge of “elevator speeches”. This is a style used often in pitching ideas for production or financial backing. You prepare a 15 second pitch (taking the elevator with someone to the second floor…) then one slightly longer , piggy-backing on the same theme if interest remains, and then another one a little longer and longer going into more depth with the time allowed.

With the desire to evangelize our faith a bit, since there is no reason to keep it to ourselves or from our neighbors who may find a home in Unitarian Universalism, the elevator speeches are meant to keep the attention of those who expect a creedal, or formulaic, answer and to help Unitarian Universalists come to a deep enough understanding of their faith to be able to capsulize it with confidence, for another.

This exercise has some merits to it, but if we try and mold ourselves to the marketing age, molding our faith understanding so that it meets the challenge of a belief statement, we lose a bit of the nature of covenant, the understanding that religion is to be lived in relation to the life we are in.
Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael offered a response awhile back which captures the relational challenge to engage this faith through our lives. “This is a faith that moves me to places of depth,” she offered, “and invites me to be my best self.  Come with me on a Sunday Morning,” she added, “I am certain you will find something worthy of your time and attention.”4  
I find myself, these days, going back to the basics. Unitarian comes from the belief in unity of God. We are all one. And Universalism lifts up the belief in universal salvation. We are all worthy, all capable of wholeness, of fullness of being in harmony with all Being. The rest, to borrow a phrase by Rabbi Hillel, is commentary. We are all one, we are all worthy and we are capable of making it all work together.

But what is it that binds us together? What is it that we hold onto, that we believe in, that we answer to when we claim this living faith? What understanding, what loyalty are we dedicating our days to as we dwell in faith community and share our vision of world community?

This is a question that the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association asked of its members last year in a program initiative called “Whose Are We”?

“Whose are we?,” wrote Rev Sarah Lammert, a member of the coordinating team, “Whose are we, we who claim so many diverse approaches to what is of ultimate truth, and yet gather as a unified one? Whose are we? What or who do we serve, beyond the narrow interests of ourselves? What transcends our small individual being, connecting us to the pulsing life of the universe we are a part of?”5

As Unitarian Universalists, we tend to favor the searching rather than the finding, the diversity rather than the definition. This is true amongst UU clergy as well. Sometimes it’s even more pronounced, for we clergy can get focused on the people we serve, helping them come to their own self claiming, leaving little room or time to center on our own sacred knowing. Dwelling in diversity can become a hazard for deeper thinking if we are not careful, for we can get wrapped up in the challenge of multi-lingual theological expression, having a shallow knowledge of many ways of believing, rather than a deep knowledge of our way of being. Sometimes it is easier not to choose in the claiming that we are open minded, rather than choose for Now, remaining ever open to new knowledge.
As one colleague put it at a Whose Are We workshop: “We tend to have a spiritual don’t ask don’t tell policy.”6

It is an inspiring juggle between serving others and self claiming, living out loud and in community. It is also an honor, a privilege, a true opportunity to come to a sense of motivation for life and each other.

The Rev. Carl Scoval referenced Thomas Merton in speaking of ministry:

“The true monk is one who, finally realizing that he is engaged in the folly of meeting an impossible demand, instead of renouncing the whole thing, devotes himself even more completely to the task.”7

So this is what the UU Minister’s Association challenged us colleagues to do together: devote ourselves more completely to the task in exploring the question “Whose Are We?”
The phrase itself, I must admit, did not excite me, even though the invitation to explore spirituality together did. I do not think of myself as belonging to an entity or idea system, or – I don’t know, of taking sides or forming teams – which was my first take on what we might be invited to do.
I certainly have my being in circles of care and accountability and know there is a loyalty to a deep and abiding source of truth within….I know that I live in that source which outstretches my singular being and ever reaches beyond my knowing. I do not think there is a possessiveness about it, nor a requirement of belonging: we simply do belong whether we recognize it or not. There is, however, an opportunity to recognize this source within all things which is an inherent guide to beauty, truth, justice and love. This source beyond measure is that which can be named God, though it’s simply a word that approximates that which cannot be fully named.
So if I look at the question, “whose are we?” as a kind of recognition, then I remain open to see, feel hear, touch and sense what is before me. Then the dialogue and silences, the worship and claiming bring gifts not of my own making in opening to the fullness of life.
The process of our inquiry together started with focusing on how we identify our singular being. Who am I? What are my identities?
We went on to recall our sense of calling, that moment or pull toward deeper meaning and wider reaching: a sense of the “more” of which we are a part. This “more” that can be felt in the quickening of breath and the opening of soul; a “more” that somehow engages and transforms us, a “more” that guides us and embraces us, a “more” just beyond what we had felt or known before, a “more” that beckons participation.
The next step was to engage the living of that call, that beckoning of participation in the larger “we” and finally, the return to the nature of covenant, which supports and upholds our way of being together.
Beckoning, believing and belonging: claiming who we are with each other and in the world at large, embracing the mystery beyond our knowing as the way we have our being, and finding the truth of our lives in the living of our days.
Whose are we? All Being….as part of the flow of the cosmos and each a bit of the hum of the universe. Whose are we? All Knowing… as part of the consciousness of God and each a bit of the truth of life’s worth. Whose are we? Each other’s…as part of the interdependent web of existence in which we have our being.
Praises Be. Glory Be. Blessings Be. Amen.

1 Anonymous sharing from the internet, sent to me by Hazel Hopkins


3 Ed Schempp, layperson, as quoted by John Buehrens in Our Chosen Faith:An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, Beacon Press, Boston, 1989

4 Relayed by permission. Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael

5 SERMON: Whose Are We? By The Rev. Sarah Lammert, February 1, 2009

Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, New Jersey

6 SERMON: Whose Are We? By The Rev. Sarah Lammert, February 1, 2009

Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, New Jersey

7 Scoval, Carl. The Impossible Call, UUMA Massachusetts Bay District Clergy Meeting, October 4, 2000,

in Unitarian Universalist Christian, pp. 94-95.

Beckoning, Believing, Belonging 9 October 2011 Page

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