Sunday, February 5, 2017

Church Words: A Unitarian Universalist Experience

Prayer. Church. God. Holy. Blessed. Sanctuary. Congregation.

There are many words that religious communities across the world use that are similar. Some of them are parallel in meaning while some may translate quite differently depending on one’s religious affiliation. When Unitarian Universalists in the United States hear particular words – church, god, sacred, holy – sometimes they become quite antsy. Throw in words like “covenant,” “principles,” “freedom,” “justice,” and you are sure to be a crowd pleaser. Use the other words, like the term “blessed,” and you may hear groans or see the rolling of eyes.

Why is it that the Unitarian Universalist faith that I love so much has become an organization of “be careful what you say and how you say it”? Have we forgotten where we came from? Have we become so loose that our history has somehow seeped out of the sharp creases of our global fellowship? When did we become so uncomfortable and so careful with language – church words – that we have somehow archived them on a high shelf and only tend to bring them out for view in a historical context? What does this say about our organization – about us as a people?

Both the Unitarian and Universalist churches, which merged in 1961, were historically Christian denominations based in the United States (the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association). It was out of this consolidation that the insistence on freedom of personal conscience in matters of faith began to extend to people who might stand outside of the Christian experience. This opened doors to people who belonged to two faiths, people who wanted to explore multiple faiths, and people who did not want to belong to any faith. It was out of this consolidation that we began to embrace one another and our world religions and our science communities on a more intimate and higher standard. The door has been held open for Jews, Christians, Atheists, Humanists, Pagans, Buddhists, Hindus, and more – anyone who wants to come in and be part of the greater community who covenant together in free thinking and endorse personal conscience in matters of faith.

So as we think about where each of us come from – our religious backgrounds – and where we have arrived – in the UU Faith – I feel it is important to also understand that, even though she is ever evolving, there is a deep and important history in the Unitarian Universalist Association where words matter. It is important to understand that if sections of the New Testament, the Koran, or words like ‘amen’ or ‘namaste’ are used in a worship or non-worship setting within your congregation – it’s ok! The building will not explode. Your head will not explode!

We use different words to express our personal and our global organization experiences where faith is concerned. Because I grew up in a Protestant Christian family I am likely to use particular words that speak to that experience. And while I now identify as an ‘Earth-centered Christian Humanist,’ some of that language may have changed slightly or has been incorporated with new identifiers. While I feel more comfortable referring to the Cosmic Force (which I grew up referring to as God) now as The Universe and while I may not necessarily believe in physical locations in the afterlife as heaven or hell but rather a spiritual world or another plane of existence, I have been able to take the time to see that these words and phrases translate beautifully and sometimes have an interesting parallel. While some words like bible, prayer, and deity are static and usually point to something specific, I know that in my understanding as a Unitarian Universalist living into my free exercise of faith it all works out – it all makes sense.

One of the very first Unitarian Universalist services I attended (probably my third time attending a particular congregation) in Northwest Texas, I remember that we had a lay-led service where we discussed something about the “existence” and “non-existence” of God/god. I shared some of my views (which have changed tremendously since that service almost 20 years ago) which were in a Christian context. It is important to point out that while I was attending this particular UU fellowship I was also studying to be a priest in the Orthodox Catholic Church. 

After the service had ended and we began partaking of the sacrament of coffee and pastries, one of the members, who had already expressed both her disdain with all religions and that she was a proud Atheist, came directly up to me and said, “You know, all of that Christian stuff is nothing but a bunch of baloney!” A silence fell between us. I didn’t know what else to do or say in my moment of shock. All I could do was start laughing. I couldn’t understand how a person of secular persuasion who was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association – an organization that fully and openly welcomes people of all faiths – could say such a thing to me (or anyone for that matter). What about “Love is the doctrine of this church…?” That love that translates so well into respect for the diversity of all faiths, thought processes and backgrounds? She went on a bit further to endorse her personal beliefs and intolerance of the Pagans and Wiccans in the room as well. At least I wasn’t being singled out, I thought. She made a few pauses and was waiting for me to say something but my friends who were attending there with me – one a Wiccan and the other an Agnostic – very calmly and politely grabbed me by the arm and suggested it was time to leave. It would be months before I was able to attend the little fellowship again.

I have encountered others who were like that 70 year-old woman who expressed intolerance for other faith groups at other UUs over the years. One thing I have learned, however, is that each of us come from various experiences – both good and bad. I don’t know what this woman’s experience was growing up - if a faith community injured her, or if she was just a downright grump. I do know that even though I did go on to be ordained in the Orthodox Catholic Church (which is a whole different story by itself) only to resign four years later in 2008 (which is also a whole different story by itself) and return to the Unitarian Universalist Association in 2012, I have learned that I am totally responsible for my responses to others, my reactions to words, and to also live into my truth and proper usage of language in the UU faith.

I believe it is important for us to be comfortable with one another’s choices to follow a particular path – whether it be Christian, or Atheist, or Humanist, or Jewish, or Buddhist, or Earth-centered, or even self-centered. I believe that we need to be comfortable with readings from various, historically sacred texts – maybe not to the extent that each person in the room may apply such to one’s life (unless you choose to) but to continuously be educated in universal truths that our organization so lovingly and passionately endorses. I believe it is important that we teach our children well and give them the full set of tools so that they will feel comfortable making up their minds as they get older of what makes sense to them and allows each of them to reason out beliefs and faith for themselves – according to their personal conscience – and not what we want them to believe or disbelieve. We need to listen to each other and welcome each other’s words and live into the full Unitarian Universalist experience.