Unitarian Universalism is an active faith. It requires something of every participant. We come together to care for each other and the world. Describing a congregation or the Unitarian Universalist movement as a whole can be difficult, because we don’t have a rock-solid, unchangeable creed. It’s a different way of thinking of religion than many people are accustomed to. What draws us together are ways of being and doing.
Universalist minister and scholar L.B. Fisher wrote in 1921, “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all. We move.” (From Which Way? A Study of Universalists and Universalism) Even 98 years later, after consolidation with the Unitarians and epic world events, we have inherited this active faith. We move.
This explanation, “we move,” is satisfying in a number of ways, but pretty soon we have even more questions. Where do we move? How do we move? By what power do we move? We’re all in this movement together, and I’m not saying I have any final answers, but I would like to ask those questions along with you for awhile. In our Unitarian Universalist faith, where do we move? How do we move? By what power do we move?
If you participated in youth or young adult ministry in the last fifteen years or so, you might have experienced an exercise from the curriculum, “Articulating Your UU Faith,” by Barbara Wells ten Hove and Jaco B. ten Hove. It’s an improvisation game, with two chairs that participants can take turns filling. One chair is for the questioner, and one chair is for the person answering questions about Unitarian Universalism. Whoever is sitting in the chair does the best they can, and the other participants can tap the shoulder of one of the people in the chairs to take their place.
Questioners might try to stump their friends with, “What do you believe about Jesus?” or, “Is this a cult? If you can’t give me a straight answer, I know it’s a cult.” Or, if they are feeling more conciliatory, “Why do you get together? What’s your goal?”
Playing this game takes preparation. One of the preparation exercises is to fill in the blanks to this statement: “I used to believe _________ , but now I believe _________ .” For instance, I used to believe that God was a man in the clouds, but now I believe that the Holy is beyond our narrow human understanding of gender or geography. I used to believe that people go to Heaven when they die. Now I believe that, when I die, the matter and energy that make me who I am will be released and re-absorbed by the forces that create and uphold life. Let’s take a moment to think. How would you fill in the blanks? I hope you’ll share your answer with someone in the Fellowship Hall after the service.
When I say, “We don’t stand, we move,” the first thing I think of is this linear motion from A to B. In order to describe this kind of motion, I need to have a way to describe point A and point B, and maybe something about the time it took to get there. To tell the whole story of motion, it’s not enough to say, “I don’t believe in such-and-such.” That’s like describing point A without any other information. We can’t describe motion with only one piece of information. Telling the rest of the story isn’t always easy. Describing point B can be emotionally difficult. Leaving point A may have been painful, how can I commit to finding a point B that I might have to leave again. Describing point B requires focus and creativity. Another thing as like about this way of understanding movement is that we can imagine a point C. We aren’t what we were, and we may yet become something new.
One of my professors in seminary, Rosemary Chinnici, told us that we come to a time when we realize the faith we have inherited is inadequate for what we are facing. She called this religious impasse. I don’t think she meant that everyone changes religious affiliation when hitting a rough spot, I think she meant that we have to change how we relate to our faith.
Another of my professors, Rebecca Parker, writes what she learned from Professor Chinnici about running into religious impasse. “[A]t such moments we have three choices: We can hold to our religious beliefs and deny our experience, we can hold our experience and walk away from our religious tradition, or we can become theologians.” Parker and Chinnici both recommend the third option.
Religious impasse happens to people who were raised with no formal religious tradition. It happens to lifelong Unitarian Universalists. All of us have beliefs. Beliefs can be challenged by personal experience, no matter who we are or where we’ve come from. When we work to re-frame our spiritual journey, we are creating a map to navigate religious impasse. This is what our religious communities must do. We must equip each other and encourage each other to become theologians. If we can do that for each other, we will be able to describe where we move.
How we move is part of the story, just as much as where we move. Sometimes we move in a circle instead of a straight line. We don’t have to go anywhere to be on a journey. Let’s say I’ve got a rock on the end of a string. If I swing it in a circle, I’ve got centripetal force, a center-seeking force that pulls the moving rock toward the center of the circle, and I’ve inertia that keeps the rock moving in whatever direction it’s going away from the center. The force that pulls the rock to the center is tension on the string. If I cut the string while the rock is going around in a circle, the rock will fly off in whatever direction it was pointed it, tangential to the center, probably injuring someone or breaking something in the process. That’s how I feel when I can’t find my spiritual center.
If we are in motion, acting in a dance of dynamic tension with a set of forces and influences, how do we stay connected to the center? If we are telling the story of how we move, the center and our relationship to it is part of the story.
I used to live within walking distance of a lake in a fairly large city. The lake is edged with schools, churches, parks, and a walking path. At the lake, I saw geese and ducks, and I met birds that were new to me, like banded coots. Occasionally I would see a pelican or a heron, just hanging out in the lake in my neighborhood. The lake was like a meeting place, a natural town square for human and non-human neighbors. Families, couples, elders, runners, weary people seeking rest, teenagers seeking new horizons, all came to the edge of the lake to sit or to walk the three-mile path around it. I would walk by the lake when I had something to think through, or when I was moved to have a heart-to-heart talk with a partner or friend. The lake seemed to me to be a center of community and beauty. What went on underneath the surface of the lake was a mystery to me. The water was reflective and unknowable, but it provided a center around which hearts revolved.
Where is the center? What keeps us connected to the center? In this congregation, you proclaim a common bond through your mission. Perhaps the visible and tangible forms of that bond have to do with love and acceptance of one another. The common bond is the string tying the souls of this congregation to the center. Love and acceptance are inward acting forces. I don’t think love and acceptance form the center, they are the forces that keep you connected to the center as you keep in motion.
The center has something to do with the interdependent relationships that transcend above and below the surface. This includes relationships with the broader community. For some people, those relationships will include a deep spiritual path or a connection with a higher power. Think about the lake: the fish and plants and microoganisms below the surface of the water absolutely had an impact on the birds and other animals that were visible to me on my walks, and all of that life contributed to the beauty that drew people there in contemplation and conversation. The center is both tangible and intangible.
The center of this congregation might have something to do with a calling that can’t be completely defined or explained. Perhaps it’s a calling to bring new things to birth, to develop relationships and talents and capacities that move the world toward beloved community, toward justice and compassion, toward the beauty that reminds us of the belovedness and interdependence of all things. I believe that dismantling white supremacy has something to do with it, and lifting up our connections with the planet, and celebrating people in all of their beautiful diversity of genders and affections and families and abilities and presentations. There is more to the center than I know how to name, but I believe it has to do with interdependence and with a love that is beyond our ability to comprehend.
Sources of Energy
“We move.” In addition to questions about where we move and how we move, there are questions about what moves us. By what power do we move? What are our sources of energy? Getting back to physics for a minute, the definition of expended energy, of work, is force times distance. When we’re on the journey, when we’re shining brightly and reaching out, that takes energy. That has to come from somewhere.
UU minister and singer-songwriter Meg Barnhouse writes about this in her essay, “The Stretcher and The Swan.” She says, “I get tired when I forget and act like I’m the source of my energy, my love, my creativity.”
Barnhouse writes of the mistake of imagining that one is the source of one’s energy. I am not the source of my own energy. We draw from powers not of our own making when it comes to love, getting things done, working things out. Like the swan, we move gracefully when we move with the waves that lift us up.
We have many ways of understanding the mysteries of creative, sustaining, transforming power. Your description may involve the inspiration of ancestors and prophets, or it may involve the momentum of stardust forming and re-forming in echoes from the birth of the universe. Your description may involve a still, small voice within. It may involve the dreams of generations to come, calling you into being. Indeed, your description of what sustains you may be God or Goddess or the Spirit of Life. There are many names for the source that sustains us and transforms us while we are constantly in motion.
What kinds of powers support and uphold life for you? Does your shared purpose as a congregation move you? Do you trust that purpose enough to be moved? Sometimes we need to rest, and often we need to remember that we are in this together. How a congregation lives out its purpose will change. The faces of leadership will change. The world around you will change. There are waves upholding you throughout that paddling around. Trust that there is grace in uncertainty.
Caring for each other and the world are worthy goals. We don’t have to do it alone. The powers and blessings we hold are entrusted to us by unseen hands. Whatever our spiritual path, there are sources of energy that move us forward, around, inside out, and through. When we honor the namable and unnamable forces, we open ourselves up still further to the energy of those sources.
“We do not stand at all. We move.” True enough. Where do we move? How do we move? By what power do we move? May we become theologians, creating maps for our spiritual journeys. May we circle around the center, connected to mystery, in service to a shared purpose. May we empower each other for the journey in cooperation with the Source of Life.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.