First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

seek ... nurture ... serve

"Be Thou My Vision"

September 30, 2018
Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees
In the Spring of 2004, I was completing my ministerial internship at Main Line Church in Devon, PA. I had successfully been to see the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. This is the group that credentials Unitarian Universalist ministers. I was approved for ordination and to go into search for a ministry settlement.

I asked the Main Line congregation to ordain me, and they agreed. I planned the service, including selecting hymns. One of the hymns I chose was “Be Thou My Vision.” While reviewing the draft program with me, my supervisor asked me whether I would prefer “Wake, Now, My Senses” rather than “Be Thou My Vision.” I told my supervisor, no, that I preferred “Be Thou My Vision.” I never asked him why he asked me that question in the first place. I had a sense that it had something to do with the perception of those two versions of this hymn and the congregation at Main Line was predominately humanist in its theology. I suspected that my supervisor himself preferred “Wake Now.”

As you now know, after singing those two hymns earlier this morning, both of them rely on the same tune but have different lyrics. The lyrics to “Wake Now” were written by a Unitarian Universalist minister, Thomas Mikelson. He served congregations in Iowa and Massachusetts. The lyrics were written for the ordination and installation of another UU minister.

The original lyrics "Be Thou My Vision" were written sometime in the 6th to 8th century by a Celtic Christian poet and translated into English in the late 1800s. Ths version in our hymnal was further adapted, changing words like Lord to God, and eliminating gendered pronouns and gendered references to God. (https://www.godtube.com/popular-hymns/be-thou-my-vision/)

Why I chose “Be Thou” for my ordination was partly emotional and partly theological. I grew up in the United Methodist Church where I sat in the pews with my parents and sister, most often just my mother and sister, and sang this hymn. The hymn offered a link to my religious history. And for my Christian family who attended my ordination into UU ministry it provided a connective thread.

My exposure in seminary to Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, deepened my love for this version of the hymn. Buber wrote of the I-Thou versus I-it relationship. The I-Thou expresses reverence in relationship, whether in my relationship to a tree or another person or my cat. To treat the other as Thou is to honor their divine essence and energy, their Spirit of Life. My cat loves being revered as Thou. Those of you who have cats probably know just what I mean. The language of Thou in this hymn evokes the reverence of relationship for me. The thing is, I love “Wake Now” just as much as “Be Thou.” And I love that I can contemplate both—both of these visions as well as many others.

One of the distinctive aspects of Unitarian Universalism is that we strive to have a big tent in which to explore and experiment. Or to put it another way, we keep our belief bags open. Rev. Gary Kowalski says,

soon after we arrive in the world, we start to gather ideas.
   We pick up beliefs and ideas about people and animals and families. We collect ideas about stars and comets and how it all got started. We accumulate beliefs about good and bad, right and wrong, what’s healthy and unhealthy, and what is important in life.
   All these beliefs, which we get from our parents and playmates, from the TV and from Sunday School, go into our belief bag.

My religious philosophy has evolved since childhood, but many beliefs remain, things like my belief in the basic goodness of life despite the terrible suffering in the world, the need to be of service, the value of participation in religious community, the free search for truth and meaning, reverence for the natural world, and belief in an animating force in all existence.

Some unresolved questions remain as well. How is it that I can doubt the existence of God while having had mystical experiences of the sacred? My move to Unitarian Universalism was precipitated by my need to explore those questions and also to leave some things behind—dogma, adherence to one religious source, and conventional beliefs in heaven and hell. I’ve always been a free thinker and attempts to rein in my searching, inquiring mind had the effect of dampening my spirit. I wanted more freedom to explore and help figuring out how to do that exploring.

Gary Kowalski observes that some people hold their beliefs very close and avoid anything that might threaten them. Others add anything and everything into their bags seeing one idea as being as good as the next without vigorously questioning and engaging those ideas.

Some people carry their bags like a weapon and bludgeon other people with it rather than living it. For example, a person’s belief bag can contain some really beautiful ideas but sometimes a person can end up claiming a belief in peace and then violently insisted on it.

But ours is a religion, Kowalski says, in which we:

carry our bags . . . with the top open, so that new ideas and experiences can get inside, and old beliefs can be tossed aside if needed. We carry our bags in front of us, so that we can see and examine what goes in, to be sure it makes sense and fits with other things we know. And also so that we can see what our neighbors think, and share our thoughts with others. Above all, we never use our beliefs to beat up or bully other people. (https://www.uua.org/worship/words/time-all-ages/its-not-what-you-believe-how, “IT'S NOT WHAT YOU BELIEVE, BUT HOW,” Gary Kowalski)

That’s what we aspire to and at times fall short of achieving. UU has gone through some periods when old beliefs were being tossed aside along with anyone who held those beliefs. There were times when Christianity, talk about God, and mysticism were met with suspicion. UU has also gone through some periods when new beliefs were being adopted with an “anything goes” attitude. People could be heard saying that UUs can believe anything they want. These extremes fail to honor the inclusive and considered approach UU brings to religion. It fails to honor the search as being both responsible and free.

We become more inclusive and continue to grow spiritually not by clutching too tightly nor by allowing every new idea that comes along. Instead we allow new information and ideas to help us develop a more robust and responsible faith. We examine and evaluate. We question. We engage in religious dialogue and study. We listen and reflect.

Having a religious community that is dedicated to this free search and rigorous responsible examination is not only important to us. It’s fundamental to the practice of liberal religion. Having a set of principles and sources that have been developed collectively helps in that searching. It helps us collectively and individually envision what makes sense.

New information may lead us to toss aside old beliefs and adopt new ones. But not necessarily. New ideas can help to shape and refine what we already value and perhaps complexify our beliefs. We don’t need to choose one and only one way. I can choose both “Be Thou” and “Wake Now”—or neither. There are times I may need one of those messages more than the other, as I did at my ordination, and times I need both, and times when I need something else. Sometimes I need to invoke the Spirit of Life or the Fire of Commitment or the Beauty of the Earth. One thing I know is that even I don’t need or want a particular message there is invariably someone who does, someone sitting in a nearby pew in desperate need of exactly that hymn, reading, or story.

Let me tell you about Aneesa Shaikh and how the vision of the free and responsible search brought her to UU. She discovered UU when she was 13. Her mother was southern Baptist and her father Muslim. When they married, her mother converted to Islam. Aneesa says she had great appreciation for the Muslim faith but questioned whether she believed in God, which was so central to Islam. So she began to search and found a blog post about Unitarian Universalism. She decided to visit. When she showed up at the UU church the next week, the woman at the door asked her what she was looking for in a church. Aneesa said, “Well, I’m kind of Muslim, kind of Atheist, and really confused, so . . . I guess I don’t really know what I’m looking for.” She says it was a complete surprise to have the woman put an arm around her, lead her to the sanctuary, and say: “I think this is just the place for you.”

Eventually Aneesa’s whole family started attending the church with her. Aneesa said:

We still keep Islam very close to our hearts, and it will always be a part of our mixed-up, complex family culture. But we are all very different people, and UUism gave us the freedom we all needed to develop our deeper beliefs and figure out what worked for us as individuals. It significantly changed the way I live my life. It made me more mindful and reflective, taught me to think more inclusively about the big picture, and opened doors to opportunities I may never otherwise have had access to.

One of those opportunities was to learn that no institution is exempt from systems of oppression—even UU. Knowing that, she says, helped her think and work holistically toward justice in all aspects of her life. (Testimony, “A Search for Truth and Meaning”)

This month we have been exploring what it means to be a people of vision. To be a people of vision is to affirm that revelation is not sealed. That the divine is breaking through in glorious and unexpected ways and places and people. Knowledge and insight and understanding are ever evolving. As new information and experiences arise, we remain willing to change our minds and our hearts and our spirits. To be a people of vision is to hold open our very selves to new ideas, new people, to new ways of being. This is evidenced in the evolution of our music. It is also evidenced in the evolution of our principles.

In recent years there’s been a growing awareness that one of the religious ideas that needs more space and presence in our congregations is a theology of multiculturalism and anti-oppression. Our congregations are collectively shaping language for this commitment to an eighth principle. The proposed statement is:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.

To live our vision of religion means being inclusive of a wide diversity of religious ideas and a wide diversity of ways of being. For Unitarian Universalists, it means neither clinging too tightly nor flinging themselves open willy-nilly. Our call is to remain courageously and compassionately open. Our call is to journey together toward a vision of spiritual wholeness.

May we be such a people. May we open our minds and hearts to heal and be healed. Amen. Blessed be.