First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

seek ... nurture ... serve

Why I'm Still a Unitarian Universalist

August 21, 2016
Rev. Sandra Fees

When I discovered Unitarian Universalism, I felt I had come home. This is an experience I share with many others who did not grow up in this faith but stumbled upon it or were introduced to it as adults. I felt I had stepped onto sacred ground that first Sunday I entered a UU community. I felt I belonged.

It did not matter that it was summer and the service was held in the basement where it was coolest. It did not matter that a lay person was leading the service not the minister. It did not matter that there was an interim minister not a settled minister. It did not matter that there were only a dozen or so people that first day.

What mattered was that I found myself amid others who were also seeking the light, something greater than themselves which they described in various ways and to which they gave a variety of names. What mattered was that from the very first time I entered a UU religious community, I experienced the greeting that flowed from hand to hand and the hope glowing from heart to heart.

When I entered that UU church for the first time, my search for a religious community ended, but my seeking had in truth really just begun. I had found a religion that made the search itself one of its core principles by affirming “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

I quickly become immersed in all things Unitarian Universalist. I eagerly anticipated Sunday mornings and attended worship services as often as I could. I joined committees, many committees. I worked on social justice. I signed up for educational classes and participated in the women’s group. I could not get enough.

UUism became a central part of my life and the religion that helps me be my best self. I had been so hungry for religion, having grown up United Methodist but without a church home as a young adult. I had tried a few other religious communities. In turned out that my hunger for more led me to seminary. I was called to make UU not only my religion but also my calling and my profession. 

Now I’m a religious leader and a 20-year UU. And this religion matters as much to me now as ever. Singing hymns, being with others who are engaged in theological reflection, writing sermons and leading worship, working together on social justice, attending denominational events like General Assembly, developing and participating in programs for and with our children and youth, collegial relationships with UU clergy – all of these are vitally important to me. Some of these might be found in non-UU settings, but for me the best and most authentic religious fit is UU.

Historically being part of religious community was what people did. In fact, some of us can remember the days when Sunday mornings or the Sabbath was devoted to religion. I grew up with that practice. Malls and stores were closed, there were no school sporting events, no social media, and a general understanding that “this is the day the Lord has made.”

Being part of a religious community is no longer a cultural norm. Many people are opting out of religion altogether as irrelevant, boring, or flawed. The continued rise of secularism, which Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar describes as the deafening “howls of materialism, alienation, speed, and greed,” has also steadily infringed on the importance of religion (The Gift of Faith).

Some people have decided that they want to be “spiritual but not religious,” choosing to meet their spiritual needs outside religious community. The reality today is that there are more events, activities, programs, and opportunities than ever, including on Sunday mornings. Some people choose to stay home and watch Sunday morning pundits, making politics their religion. Others are going to yoga, reading the New York Times, hiking, sleeping in, going to concerts, parties or other events.

Still there are those of us who feel a passion for religious community, who, as writer Marge Piercy says, “want to be with others who submerge in the task.” I am one of those people. You are too, or might be, judging from your presence here this morning. That doesn’t mean that those of us gathered here do not also like to read the paper, or engage in politics, or hike or do yoga. It does mean that having a liberal religious community matters to us.

Why does it matter? What makes UUism continue to be relevant in a culture that devalues matters of the spirit? Why does it matter amid the plethora of religious options available to us today?

There are many themes I might lift up, but for today I’ve trimmed the list of reasons I continue to be a UU to just six. There are other ways to express these same ideas. They overlap and interconnect. And each of you might have some other themes you would add to the list. In fact, a year from now, I might change up this list just slightly myself. Before I begin, I want you to notice as I share these six themes that none of them rely on a belief in God. Nor do any of them deny a belief in God. These themes can be relevant for atheists, theists, agnostics, and humanists alike.

First, we are a covenantal faith. Our religion is built on mutual promises we make to one another in community rather than on professions of faith or creeds. As a covenantal religion, the focus is placed on striving to be in relationship with each other, recognizing that becoming more fully human happens through interdependence not by being separate and going it alone. Unitarian Universalists affirm interconnectedness, expressed as “the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” This practice of covenantal relationship honors that connection.

Covenant invites us to imagine a vision larger than any one person can have on their own. Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed says:

The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.

My second theme is ongoing revelation. Unitarian Universalism is unique in affirming that wisdom can be found in many sources. No one religion, no one sacred text, and no one prophet has a corner on the market in truth and insight. Instead, we draw from diverse sources, including prophets, world religions, poetry, science, nature, and experience. And new knowledge, new insight, is always possible. In the words of our opening hymn, we affirm that “life maketh all things new.”

Third is spiritual growth. Our UU principles affirm “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” In other words, Unitarian Universalism is both spiritually nurturing and spiritually challenging. Growth does not happen without both of these.

There is a tendency to focus on how accepting this religion is, especially of theological diversity. Our theological inclusivity is certainly fundamental to our way of being in religious community and is linked to our openness to ongoing revelation. Each person is invited to come into community with their own theological understandings and questions and to explore those ideas and questions in community. There are opportunities and encouragements to learn about different religious ideas, try new spiritual practices, and evolve our religious understanding. One of the things I have valued in this faith is the ability to try on different beliefs and to change my beliefs without having to change my religion. If my particular understandings about God, the universe, or the afterlife change, I can still be a UU.

As one example, for a long time, I held the view that after we die we live on only through the people whose lives we have impacted and through our accomplishments. UUism made it possible for me to express that humanistic view in religious community. I did not need to espouse a view of the afterlife that included the continuation of the soul. The last few years have led me to rethink this perspective. Some mystical experiences with death and dying alongside some deep exploration of dreams and regular meditation practice have led me to intuit something beyond this life, even as I struggle to name what that something is. UUism makes it possible for me to express this evolving awareness.

There is also a place for accountability in spiritual growth – the encouragement to spiritual growth. Our religion calls us to challenge ourselves and each other in love and to be willing to grow spiritually. The beauty of being part of a community is to have people to engage with in that way. I balk at the kind of religion that tells me what I must believe. I also balk at the kind of religion that fails to encourage me to think through and articulate what I do believe.

Wonder is a fourth theme. Wonder enlivens, and it leads to gratitude. Our UU sources affirm: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” This experience is also known as reverence, awe, enlightenment, and beauty. To wonder is to awaken to life.

UU religion also calls us to love. Love has been central to the Universalist side of our religion from its inception. The early Universalists believed that God is love and that a loving God would never condemn a person to eternal damnation. They believed instead that all souls would ultimately be reconciled to God. They had some disagreements about exactly how that would happen, particularly in the case of people who had committed terrible acts. Yet they could not and would not accept a religion that divided people. They were steadfast in their understanding that people have inherent worth and dignity, as articulated in our principles.

That understanding of love relates both to compassion and to the Biblical teaching to “love thy neighbor.” Neighborly love fosters hospitality and inclusion. Love is a powerful and transforming force that breaks down the barriers that separate people and seeks to dismantle oppression. Compassion is a catalyst for action, a catalyst for eliminating suffering and fostering fairness.

And that leads to the sixth theme: social justice. Justice is a cornerstone of the UU religion. Our record on social justice may be the one thing we are best known for. We take our social justice commitments seriously. They are grounded in our belief in the worth and dignity of every person, the fundamental relationship quality of all life, emphasizing the here and now not some future heaven, and compassion toward all beings. “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations” is one of our Unitarian Universalist principles.

Covenantal theology, ongoing revelation, spiritual growth, wonder, love, and social justice: six reasons UU religion matters. I cannot imagine my life without this religion. I cannot imagine the world without this religion. We are not perfect, but we are ever-striving, ever-seeking, ever-evolving, ever willing to try again, to acknowledge our shortcomings, and to celebrate this beautiful even if sometimes fragile existence of ours in community.

May it be so. Amen. Blessed be.