Acceptance of One Another and Encouragement to Spiritual Growth in Our Congregations

The Third UU Principle is the only one that designates us as a specifically “religious” organization. How else does it guide UUs?

9:00 a.m. Bulletin11:00 a.m. Bulletin

“Acceptance of One Another and the Encouragement to Spiritual Growth In Our Congregations”

March 1, 2020

This morning I continue my seven part sermon series on the Unitarian Universalist Principles, preaching on Principle #3: “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” By way of introduction let me repeat that the Unitarian Universalist church is a “Free Church.” That is, we are non-creedal; we don’t ask anyone to believe in any creed whatsoever. So, one could say, UUs believe in the ultimate freedom of belief. However, while we celebrate the freedom of belief we have, over the centuries, also celebrated certain shared sympathies. And these shared sympathies—while not binding as any kind of creedal test—are our denominational covenant. The current covenant—our seven principles and six sources—was composed with input from Unitarians Universalists across the North America during the mid-1980s.

The Principles are printed on the back of your bulletin. Two weeks ago I focused on the first principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I recounted how it was that Classical Greek and Roman ideas of human dignity and goodness were rediscovered during the Renaissance, which, in turn, influenced humanist thinkers and writers to reject the orthodox notion of human nature as sinful and depraved. And that our tradition celebrates that! Last week I spoke about the prophetic roots of our tradition inspired the second principle: justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

The third principle, in my experience, can be the most divisive within our Unitarian Universalist congregations. Someone who was not a UU might find this peculiar, but it’s true: many Unitarian Universalists have trouble with spirituality. Most people, coming to a church, rather expect to find spirituality. Anyway, in my experience, more Unitarians have a problem with the word “spirituality” than they do with spirituality itself. Their problems with the word are well founded, it seems to me, because of the way the forms of natural language end up determining—dominating—how people think.

The Transcendentalist Unitarian poet Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself that “the soul is not more than the body” and “the body is not more than the soul,” but that’s not how people think. Indeed, if one looks up the word “spiritual” in the dictionary (as I did last night) it will say: “of or pertaining to spirit, as distinguished from matter; incorporeal.”  Language cannot help but operate dualistically. Automatically and unavoidably, natural language draws distinctions between so-called opposites. If something is this, then it cannot be that. Until the whole world is divided up into a million categories; categories like sacred vs. secular, withdrawal vs. engagement, heaven vs. earth, and like spiritual vs. material. However—linguistic necessity notwithstanding, reality is nowhere near so “black & white” as language is. What Whitman and the Transcendentalists understood—that body and spirit are inextricably entwined—is not all that well understood by most people.

Because we naturally think in the categories of natural language, the idea that reality transcends those categories is—at first—counterintuitive. It takes poetry, and the use of metaphor, to help us see the subtle ways in which time and eternity interface right here, now, in our midst. The words of Rumi, a Thirteenth Century Islamic poet from Afghanistan, come to mind:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

There is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

The world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other

Doesn’t make sense.

Deep down, in that place out of which the great poets like Rumi and Whitman speak to us: antecedent to all categories, where music and art touch a resonant chord, we know what spirituality is. Even if we have problems with the word, we understand the feelings behind the word: feelings of deep and abiding truth, of connection to the wellsprings of life, of personal fulfillment and meaning and purpose. Not so much out of body feelings and totally in the body and grounded and centered. And not only centered in the body, but centered socially and historically, too, as part of a long chain of others all intimately connected, and all sharing a single human mind. Anyway, that is what I mean when I talk about spirituality, and—I am convinced—what metaphorically sensitive people have always meant too.

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In 1999-2000 I served—for one year—as Interim Minister in Binghamton, New York. Toward the end of my tenure there the organist, Gail Schmick, came up to me as said something I will never forget. “You’re the first person,” she said “to make it clear to me that the seven Unitarian Universalist Principles are a spiritual path.” I remember driving home that day and thinking: “YES!” What we are about here (or at least what we can be about) is more than just ideas and positions; it’s about developing our spirits. About becoming our complete, most fully refined, selves, and learning to love. What William Ellery Channing meant when he exhorted his parishioners to aspire after “likeness to God.” This is our life task: becoming more noble, and thereby more fully human.

Moreover, we have a lot going for us in this regard. Our ancestors in 17th Century New England put a lot of thought and energy into what they were doing when they first organized—or gathered, to use the quaint term favored among themselves; our earliest Unitarian congregations gathered themselves. Anyone could join. No belief was compelled. The King couldn’t dictate. There would be no bishops. And, most important, all leaders—lay and professional—were chosen, collectively, by the entire congregation. It was a model then, and it is an excellent model today, for the creation of non-hierarchical spiritual communities. The trouble, however, as William Sloan Coffin once noted, is that “radical democracy tends to be kind of fuzzy.” In our congregations, all too often, that’s meant we have sometimes been willing to go along with and not challenge the loudest voices; voices that, throughout the late 50s and 60s and early 70s, all too often thought of “spiritually” in strictly conventional terms.

In our congregations, that all began to change in the late 70s. Until, by the mid-80s, we collectively agreed to “affirm and promote” this 3rd UU Principle, “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”  At General Assembly I had a conversation with the Reverend Linda Whittenberg, whom I’d known in New Mexico. Linda served our UU Church in Spokane back in the 1990s during which time its membership more than doubled. “Of all the seven principles,” she exclaimed, “the third is the most important. It’s the only one that makes us truly different from my alma mater, or the Lions Club or Rotary.” She went on to share a conversation she’d had with her mother, in which her mom had told her about a support group in her local Protestant church—how crucial it had been for her over the years. Moreover—and this is the key—how, thanks to the intimacy and trust they all had in one another, she had grown in faith. If Linda’s mother’s church can be that for her, why can’t ours be that for each of us? Well, the simple answer is, it can. And it does. Especially our Covenant Circles have provided this function, but many church programs offer support and have for decades. In a way, we have a harder order to fill than among the orthodox, allowing our members, as we do, freedom to find their own spiritual paths. For some (like Linda Whittenberg’s mom), that path might be found in the parables of Jesus. But for others, that won’t signify. This, for us, is okay. However, what is not okay, yet happens too often in too many of congregations, is for folks to come here looking for spiritual support and leave feeling unheard and unfulfilled.

Helping prevent that from happening here is what the first aspect of the third principle is all about: acceptance of one another. Okay, so someone sounds a little flaky to you, or weak-kneed, or too fuzzy in their thinking. Or just the opposite: too left lobed and hyper-analytical. What of it? We get into this judgment mentality and, truth be told, we’re all pretty vulnerable. If seekers can, at times, look a little soft around the edges how about their skeptical counterparts? Too rigid, misanthropic and unimaginative? If the congregational mentality is one of criticism rather than respect, then we are all assailable, whatever our theology.

I will always remember two amazing UUs: Joel and Marianne Yancey. The Yanceys discovered our faith in the 50s and were for many years members of the Community Unitarian Church in White Plains, New York. Their minister there, for twenty years, was the late Peter Sansom, whom I remember from my first years in the ministry—still wet behind the ears—in West Redding, Connecticut, thirty-some miles away. Peter was a great preacher all right, but of a certain type, and therein was the rub. As Marianne explained, “Of Dr. Sansom Joel always said that he could deliver a wonderful lecture on one of the great writers or composers, but there was very little there, if anything, to help him get through the coming week.” Joel could reveal that to Marianne his wife, and he may have been able to say it to Peter Sansom, but could he say it aloud to other members of the church? Knowing that congregation, probably not.

It is likely, however, that things have changed there over the past thirty-five years. They certainly have elsewhere in our Unitarian Universalist movement. When I first landed in West Redding my contract only had me preaching twice a month. However, I always attended, even when I was not leading services. One reason I did so was because of a couple of members there who, invariably, would sidle up to newcomers and tell them that everyone in the West Redding UU Society was way too sophisticated to believe in anything so childish as God.  Before long, I learned to follow them around and set people straight: that was Bob or Lois’ opinion, not everybody’s. Nowadays—thanks, I think to this third UU Principle—our members are far less insistent on their own understanding as being, somehow, the wisest and most grown-up. Maybe we have all become a little more understanding. Or maybe we’ve just learned better how to appreciate diversity.

One thing that has inspired me over the years is the amazing variety, and power, of some of the spiritual practices I seen in our UU laypeople. I think first of the late Linus Pawling, two-time Noble Prizewinner and member of the Palo Alto congregation. The one time I ever attended there, I just walked in casually and he happened to speaking. I didn’t even know who he was, but I understood at once what he was talking about when he described his experience of scientific discovery. Or I think of Alice Kidder, in my Berlin, MA congregation. Alice was the most dedicated—and full-hearted—social activist I have ever known. Tireless. Totally committed. True. She gave away probably a third of what she owned, but somehow seemed to get back even more. Or the altogether different but equally spiritual social activism of Tom Andrew, of the same congregation: an international banker who, when he wasn’t writing silly musical comedies for our church fundraisers, was putting his life energy into maturing and safeguarding union pension funds. Or consider Redwood City UU Dan Wilbur, a pediatric oncologist helping cure children with leukemia, mobilizing their inner resources to live and to go on from there and actually thrive well into middle age. What did these broadly divergent Unitarian Universalists have in common? They all had consistent spiritual practices that kept them centered and rarin’ to go.

There are many paths, many ways to grow in faith, and to give ourselves the tools to become and remain more centered, grounded, and connected to one another—and to the people around us, too. To nurture within ourselves and those around us (and upon the ghost of Joel Yancy) the strength to “keep on keepin’ on” for the upcoming week. This, ultimately, is what “encouraging spiritual growth in our congregations” is all about. Making our congregations safe and supportive places for us to reach out to one another—and reach deep within. Where better than a religious community to practice just that?

Sure, there’s risk involved. It means living with and listening to people who, in some cases, are much different that we. Who may be into occult phenomena, unusual dietary regimens, voluntary poverty and who knows what else? It also may mean, in some cases, taking some new risks of our own, into unknown territory that we want to explore but are nervous about, and need support. In which case the hopeful words from the Sermon on the Mount may be all the “encouragement to spiritual growth” we need: “Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door is opened.” [Matt. 7: 7-8]

Let me take a moment to segue into the Mission Fund Drive, which formally begins this morning and will run through March. We are not planning to knock on your door, but we are asking for (and hoping to receive) from everyone a pledge to help fund the upcoming 2020-2021 year. The budgeting process is now underway and I invite all of you to pay attention and check it out. Our Executive Director, Jason Puracal, has put together a video that unpacks and demystifies the whole process, which can be found at https://esuc.org/give/mission-fund-drive/.

The Budget Team has set a reasonable and realistic goal. If everyone increased their 2019-2020 pledges by only 5%, we would meet and exceed our financial needs. And indeed, despite only starting this morning, early pledges from eight members already total over $83,500, or 13% of our total goal! These same eight “early bird” pledgers have an average increase of over 12.5% from their last years’ (2019-2020) pledges. Now it is up to the rest of us to follow their bold lead. Attending and supporting this church is a spiritual practice paying manifold benefits year after year. Moreover, the more one contributes, the more it pays back in return.

Please pick up your pledge packet in the foyer after service and also please return them by March 29. On that Sunday we’ll offer a delicious brunch all morning long, served by students at Renton Technical College, allowing all of our membership to fully participate. Pledge generously and then come to church four weeks from today and celebrate generously, too!

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Not everyone has a near instantaneous and transformational, faith-building experience like the astronaut Edgar Mitchell. But almost all of us, I think, know what the poet Mary Oliver means when she calls to our heart of hearts, bidding us to set out…on the path…to save yourself. That path, for everyone, is a spiritual one; no matter what language you use to describe it. Our Third UU Principle asks us to help make that path a safe and warmly welcoming one for all who congregate, who gather, here. Let it be so. However uncertain we’re tempted to be, let us this morning resolve to try harder to accept one another no matter what path we’re on. And to support—encourage—each other on those paths that we may grow together. In faith. In spirit. In mutual respect and affection.          Amen.