Have you ever questioned the value of religion? Have you ever lost your religion? Maybe you felt the church could not embrace your understanding of God or your doubts about the divine. Maybe you felt religion – maybe even this one - failed you in some way. If so, you are not alone.
I have had many moments of “losing my religion.” Disagreeing theologically with the Christian church of my childhood was one. Going through a divorce was one. Watching my parents suffer at the end of their lives was one. Awakening to our country’s deep-seated racism and xenophobia was another. Watching congregations or ministers I love struggle with conflicts has been another.
These experiences raise questions for me about my chosen religion. They raise concerns for me about the ability of religion to adequately respond to life’s many twists and turns – and to live up to its promises and potential.
I was not always sure whether any religion could help me sort out my deepest theological questions and ponderings. I was not sure that religion could make space for me to seek answers adequate to life’s realities. I have even wondered if religion could respond adequately to a world torn apart by hate and greed. I was not always sure that even Unitarian Universalism could hold me and others amid turbulent times.
In our reading this morning, Robin Bartlett shares the ways crises in her life challenged her faith in Unitarian Universalism. The loss of a marriage and attending divinity school brought about significant changes for Bartlett. So much so that she says, “I started to change so much that I didn’t recognize myself.” She found comfort in Jesus. It is both ironic and troubling that her love of Jesus caused her to doubt her Unitarian Universalist faith rather than deepening it. It is troubling that wearing a cross – alone or in a chalice - would raise questions about someone’s Unitarian Universalist identity. But indeed, it can, and sometimes does.
I remember when I was a theological student at a Christian seminary. I went to a denominational meeting wearing ankh earrings. The ankh is a symbol of life that comes from ancient Egypt. The symbol resembles a cross only there is a loop or handle at the top instead of the top arm a cross has. At the meeting one denominational leader took one look at my earrings and said, I see you are wearing cross earrings. What do those mean to you? This was not a friendly question. I explained to him the ankh and its symbolism. I grew up a Christian, I attended a Christian seminary, I do not identify as Christian, I resented deeply the question. But I was a student and could not challenge the leadership without repercussions.
Unitarian Universalism is not always as accepting as it aspires to be – despite laying claim to diverse theologies. This, by the way, can just as easily be about being too humanist or too spiritual or too pagan or too activist or not activist enough. Religious doubts can also have to do with the everyday ways that people disappoint each other.
Consider the story of Laila Ibrahim. She has attended the same Unitarian Universalist church for about 30 years. As she says, “In all those years my congregation has had ample time to disappoint me.” She is disappointed when her justice project is not the one everyone wants to work on and when people like different music than she does. She says she is disappointed when people do not give as much time, talent, or money as she does. In fact, she has been so disappointed that several times a year she considers whether to stay in her church.
When we feel we have changed so much that we no longer belong or wonder if our beliefs will be accepted, or feel we have been disappointed, we can feel we are losing our religion. It can be tempting to leave it and to reject religion entirely. And some people do. I understand that urge. I have felt it too. Why contend with such messy imperfection? Why work so hard?
People do walk away sometimes. I even try to put a bit of a warning label on the church. I sometimes tell people who are newer to the community – especially the ones who come with bright eager eyes and with the greatest enthusiasm that they have finally found the perfect religion - that only when the community has disappointed them will they know whether this is truly their religious home. Only when the community has failed them in some way and they decide to stay will they know that this is their chosen religion. Then they will know this is indeed the religion for them.
The religious community does not exist because it is perfect or we or our fellow congregants are. The community - we - are here to learn to love better. We are here to learn to love past our disappointments and to be part of a religion striving to live up to its vision of beloved community.
Laila Ibrahim says:
we are not in church to be with people who want to sing the same music, or rally for the same cause, or attend the same retreats. We are in church to learn to love better. And learning to love better can only happen when we love past our disappointments and return to a place of acceptance and affirmation.
Even though she has sometimes considered not attending her church for a while – or ever again, she discovered that staying away never helped her. She says,
Rather, coming in closer, telling people about my spiritual crisis – listening, sharing, caring, and worshipping – have helped me know that this is where I belong, even when church is the source of my frustration and disappointment.
Sharing the disappointments helps us draw closer. I am not talking about sharing complaints. Complaining is draining. I complain too, but it is draining. But sharing our disappointments is about sharing our hearts not our criticisms. It is about sharing who we are, our hopes and our dreams and our vulnerabilities so that we can learn better how to love and be loved.
Robin Bartlett stays because she knows that when she is lost, she will always be found. For her it has to do with knowing that there is “a Love that won’t let me go.”
Like Bartlett and Ibrahim, I continue to find my way back time after time. Staying away does not help me. It also does not work well when you are the minister. But the deeper truth is this religion is part of who I am. It is part of my identity. My true community. My tribe. The place where “Love won’t let me go.” For 21 years, Unitarian Universalism has called me back – again and again.
Why? Because it espouses my core values and principles. This community proclaims the value of interconnectedness, promotes the worth and dignity of all people, seeks justice, equity and compassion, and strives every day to translate their values into actions of love and conscience. It offers me a sense of community and belonging. And rather than telling me what to believe, the community helps me seek the God of my own understanding.
This religion is one where people gather not in “faith in one religion or one god or any one way. We gather in faith of the power of diversity, the power of love, and the hope of a world transformed by our care,” as Sunshine Jeremiah Wolfe says.
We gather not because we are afraid of temples or mosques or other churches. We are not afraid of the Bible or Torah or Koran. We are not afraid of culture or dances or children. We gather to celebrate, serve, care, practice humility, forgive, be generous, be kind, love our neighbor, and devote ourselves to God. We celebrate a faith that “teaches our hearts to hope, and our hands to care.” We gather to be in connection in a world of disconnection.
Rev. Ken Hurto says:
one of the major shifts in human understanding has been a move away from seeing ourselves as solitary, independent agents in charge of our destiny toward a more complex awareness that who we are is a direct function of who we are with. We are relational creatures. Everything about us is shaped by our connections (or disconnections) with those around us.
The past few months have offered ample opportunities for each of us to reflect deeply on the need for connection with others. The divided state of our nation, the rhetoric of hate, and the efforts to exclude the other demonstrate daily the need for a love that won’t let go.
I find myself more grateful and more heartened than ever to be a Unitarian Universalist. That is why this is my religious home. That is why this is where I commit my time and talent. This is where I come when my heart is happy and when I am weary. This is the place where my heart is broken open and where I am called “to rise and to try again and again.”
This is the reason I make an annual pledge to support the mission and vision of this congregation. My pledge for the coming year is 4 percent of my income. Unitarian Universalism is an essential and enduring part of who I am. Giving financially is a sacred opportunity for me to give expression to my most deeply cherished values. When I make my pledge, I do not expect the church to be perfect. Instead, I hope for connection that is real, honest, committed, courageous, willing, aspiring, active, caring, questioning, seeking, nurturing, creative, open, community-minded, and forgiving when we fall short.
This business of loving is a lifetime’s work. This church is a laboratory for that holy work of loving. May we strive together to make our community one where love won’t let go. May this be our story.
Amen. Blessed be.
Losing My Religion by Robin Bartlett, www.uua.org/worship/words/reflection/losing-my-religion
Messy and Imperfect Beloved Community by Laila Ibrahim in Bless the Imperfect: Meditations for Congregational Leaders, Skinner House Books