For as long as I can remember, being a Unitarian has been part of the very foundation of my identity. That the Dodges were Unitarians was a statement of fact, one of the ordering principles of my universe – as basic to my sense of self as the Dodges were Americans, spoke English. What it meant to be a Unitarian, however – and then a Unitarian Universalist – went unasked and therefore unexamined for years.
My first inkling that I didn’t really know what being a Unitarian was all about occurred to me as I was picketing with my Sunday school classmates – including the minister’s family – for a cause I only vaguely understood. As we walked round and round in front of the offices of the Board of Education, holding placards about injustices in the City School system, I wondered how I would explain my participation in the gathering media.
An imaginary microphone was thrust in my face, and I was asked, “Could you please tell our listening audience just what are you protesting here today?” The imaginary journalist continued, “And, if I’m not mistaken, you are here as a member of your church school. Could you please explain the connection between your religious affiliation and concerns for public education.?”
I sputtered and babbled in my imagination. Slogans from our signs and chants were all I could repeat: something about fighting injustice, fighting for equity in education.” The truth is I didn’t really understand either the educational conflict or the religious connection. But the fear of the media’s potential question forced me to acknowledge that I didn’t have a clue what we were challenging and why it was a matter of religious concern. Mercifully, the press didn’t press me for information, but the sheer terror of the possibility that I might need publicly to explain my presence and commitment awakened the need for greater awareness about my religious convictions and raised questions that I am still answering today.
This was in the early 1960s. The immediate concern was bussing children in and out of the Boston City School District. The larger issue, of course, was Civil Rights. I came of age as a Unitarian Universalist during an era of heightened social consciousness – an era in which the denomination itself came into being. Social action – the daily practice of living one’s religious principles, often publicly and politically – was a shaping force in my early understanding of what it meant to be a Unitarian Universalist. In my eleven-year old head being a good Unitarian Universalist and being a good citizen were synonymous.
Paradoxically, there was another aspect to my religious life, even church life, that developed simultaneously on a parallel track. Ever since I was a very young child I had an abiding sense of the sacred, in the natural world, in the arts, and in language. I was the self-appointed keeper of the animal cemetery, charged to ensure that due reverence was observed when we buried the cat’s more than occasional quarry. I have always loved music and sang in the church choir year after year. Stirred by the music, the words, and the joining of voices, singing was a transporting, transcendent experience. I felt, surely, the sacred was present at these times. I also felt the presence of mystery in the “close hand holy darkness,” to borrow Dylan Thomas’ word, every night when I went to bed. I don’t remember ever learning to pray, but prayer very early on was a precious part of my life. How keenly I remember my earnest nightly conversations with God. In my spoken and later written prayers, I yearned for connection with the ultimate.
A few moments ago, I introduced this picture of my emerging spiritual life paradoxically on a parallel track to my developing sense of my Unitarian Universalist identity. The essence of the paradox is this: my spiritual life was a private matter, one I nurtured alone. My intellectual and political identity was unquestionably Unitarian Universalist. My spiritual identity, however, was unaligned/unaffiliated.
I couldn’t have articulated this internal chasm even a week ago. The internal truth of it was viscerally familiar to me but I’ve only just brought it up to the light through thought and language. Exploring my religious journey once more through the lens of this morning’s sermon, I realized how many unresolved issues are brewing beneath the surface of my steadfast Unitarian Universalist identity.
In the fast-forward mode, let me share a few of the ways these issues have played out in my life. The story told so far takes me to about age 17 – formative years, for sure. The next 20+ years, I must count myself among the great unchurched. Give me a form to fill out asking for my denomination – ask me point blank about my religious affiliation – and I would have answered immediately Unitarian Universalist – but the church wasn’t a part of my daily life. In fact, I began visiting other churches. There was a stint visiting the Presbyterian church, a brief time among the Religious Society of Friends, a visit here and there to a UU fellowship, and soon after we moved to Rochester – sometime in the late ’70′s-early ’80′s – a Sunday spent at First Unitarian on Winton Road. I was literally aching for community, but nothing fit. There was too much talk of God and Jesus in certain settings – I found I couldn’t participate fully in the “repeat after me” sections of the service – and too little sense of the sacred in others. The ardent call to boycott grapes from a UU pulpit felt as prescriptive as the sermons from other churches.
I was on an urgent quest but I couldn’t tell you what I was looking for.
And then one day, I found it. My children were growing up without a faith community and that finally galvanized me into action. They’d been periodically dressed up and dragged to church school over the years so they weren’t totally surprised when their mother went into high gear one Sunday morning. With them safely installed in a class, I slipped into the back of the Winton Road sanctuary. I can’t tell you what the sermon topic was, which hymns we sang – all I knew is that I’d found a part of me that had been missing for ages. I came totally unprepared for the tears that were released that day.
Why then? What was so different? What had been missing before? Had the denomination changed somehow in the intervening years?
There are, I believe, both denominational and personal answers to these questions – and they are intricately interwoven. The denominational passage of the Purposes and Principles in the mid-1980s was a critical articulation of the forces that bound Unitarian Universalists together. To be a liberal religious community does not mean that anything goes. Contrary to some outsider’s views liberal and lazy are not interchangeable. Ours is an arduous way. Practitioners in many other traditions focus on an established canon – the Bible, a theology – and test their beings against it. What would Jesus do? What does the Bible demand? UUs do not have a single starting point. In religious parlance, we might say that our canon is not closed. Revelation does not belong to the past alone but is an every present reality.
Sitting in the sanctuary that day, I didn’t know all that had transpired in the denomination; I just knew that something deep within me had been touched and opened. As much as the denomination may have evolved over the years, I believe that essential changes have been at work within me. My connections with the sacred had continued privately. I had never ceased my nocturnal – and then some – dialogues with God. My sense of the holy in the natural world had grown in the intervening decades, and I had a growing “reverence for the reverence of others.” What changed was my acknowledgement of the need for and gift of community. We are both solitary and social creatures, spiritual and political animals.
I was born a Unitarian, and for years took it as a given – like my name, nationality, eye color. I only truly became a Unitarian Universalist, however, years later when I chose the denomination, acknowledging that I cannot be fully human on my own.
“Take courage, friends. / The way is often hard, the path is never clear, / and the stakes are very high. Take courage. / For deep down, there is another truth: you are not alone.”
Wayne A. Arnason, Singing The Living Tradition, #698