Religion as Relationship - Rev. Arthur G. Severance

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Opening Words
"Religion as Relationship"

Starr King Seminary president, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker says something crucial to not just church membership but membership in the human race:

"The purpose of life is not our own well-being in isolation from all others... Our well-being enters into the being of other beings, adding a measure of health or joy. We do nothing in isolation. Everything in communion. Our actions matter to us, and also to all the world. We live both for ourselves and for one another, in a balance that is given in the nature of things...Thus the purpose of life is to find and realize that joy or well-being that simultaneously pleases us and blesses our neighbor, that enters into the flow of life as a blessing, not a curse. Every act we do is a contribution to the world, the question is only what will we contribute--Thus the basic question of life is not what do I want? but what do I want to give?"

Psychological depression is now going on at a rate 10 times as high as before W.W.II. Martin Seligman, one of the psychologists who performed the study sums up its results: If you were born in the last 50 years, you have 10 times as much chance of being seriously depressed as you would if you were born in the 50 years before that time.

Seligman proposes: A more hopeful possibility: a balance between individualism, with its perilous freedoms, and commitment to the common good, which should lower depressions as well as make life more meaningful.

A prayer which was often used by Caesar Chavez during his work:
Show me the suffering of the most miserable, so I will know my people's
plight. Free me to pray for others, for you are present in every person.
Help me to take responsibility for my own life, so that I can be free at last.
Grant me courage to serve others, for in service there is true life.
Give me honesty and patience, so that I can work with other workers.
Bring forth song and celebration, so that the Spirit will be alive among us.
Let the Spirit flourish and grow, so that we will never tire of the struggle.
Let us remember whose who have died for justice, for they have given us life.
Help us love even those who hate us, so we can change the world.

In 1943t during the midst of W.W.II , the children's book, *The Little Prince, was written by a French aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exup鲹, living in NY. It has been translated in  over 150 languages and has sold something like 50 Million copies. It was one of those books with wisdom at both child and adult levels. The Little Prince was from a small planet in space and was discovering the earth and our strange behavior. Their is this wonderful exchange the following exchange between he and a fox :

   "Good morning," said the fox.
   "Good morning," the little prince responded
   "Come and play with me," proposed the little prince. "I am so unhappy."
   "I cannot play with you," the fox said. "I am not yet tamed."
   "Please excuse me, what does that mean-'tame'?" said the little prince.
   "It is an act too often neglected," said the fox. "It means to establish ties."
   "'To establish ties'?"
   "Just that," said the fox. "To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me.

To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world..."

"My life is very monotonous," the fox said. "I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life.

I shall know the sound of your step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow.

And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold.

Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat..."" The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time. "Please, tame me!" he said. "I want to, very much," the little prince replied. "But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand." "One only understands the things that one tames," said the fox. "Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me..."

"What must I do, to tame you?" asked the little prince.

"You must be very patient," replied the fox. "First you will sit down at a little distance from me, like that, in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day...... One must observe the proper rites..."

"What is a rite?" asked the little prince.

"Those also are actions too often neglected," said the fox. "They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours. . ..And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

Religion as Relationship
May 4, 2008
Rev. Arthur G. Severance

An old-timer was showing a newcomer around town. The newcomer mentioned it was odd that were two Baptist churches.

The old-timer said: "There was a terrible row a few years back. Things got worse and worse until half the people in the church left to start another church. Oh, they're TERRIBLE people at that OTHER church. We don't speak to each other on the street, even today."

The newcomer asked: "That's terrible! What was the fight about anyway?"

The old-timer shouted to his wife in the next room: "Honey, where was it they wanted to move the piano?"

When the great Universalist minister, Hosea Ballou, was preaching in the early 1800s, an elderly woman inquired of him whether he had the habit of asking his parishioners the line which was popular at other Protestant churches:  O, ye generations of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

Ballou responded in his typical laconic wit: No madam, he said. That class of people do not attend my church.

I believe there is something I call the religious relationship or religion as relationship, and that further it shows how we relate to others in our beloved community of church, our friends and family and work, as well as our relationship with God, whether we believe he/she/ it exists or not. or our relationship with religion.

Writer, Luis Fernando Verissimo describes something like this when he says: "I'm like a friend of mine who went to visit Chartres Cathedral and started levitating in front of one of the stained-glass windows, until he remembered that he wasn't a mystic and returned to earth."  - in *Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans*

If one believes, as I do, that we learn how to behave, how to relate to others from many sources, but most importantly from our families of origin, then one must logically follow that we can learn to behave differently, especially better and more loving, and further, that that is at least one reason for religion and especially church! Most of us don�t be, believe in original sin or the need to be saved, especially by belief. No, our early history talked more about something that my colleague, Alice Blair Wesley speaks about. She was the theme speaker at the recent district Annual Meeting and is known for her historical perspective. She wrote in a chat to we ministers:

Dear Ones,

Salvation by character. I think this particular historic Unitarian motto has often been misunderstood as "in opposition to" salvation by faith. Of course, that motto - in my view - is misunderstood, too, when it is taken to mean salvation by belief, especially by belief in something that really doesn't make any sense.

Both come clearer if we understand faith as (not belief at all, but) fidelity to that worthy of devoted love. Fidelity to the ways (or spirit) of love shapes and forms persons of authentically effective character and makes them into people whose influence on society is for the good health (L., salus) of all.

A free congregation is a body of people who have covenanted regularly to pay attention together to that worthy of their love and devotion. Doing so is a joy that strengthens, feeds, and salts character. The people don't have to anything like agree in all things, so long as they faithfully reason together in the spirit of love. Reasoning in the spirit of love will persuade many of them quite often enough (and I'm not talking about taking "votes"!) to make the character of their faith community a powerful influence for good on one another, on their children, and on their "town." That is why a liberal, rational and free church is the best hope of the world.

Salvation by character: Yes, that is our hope, I hope.
            Thine, Alice Blair Wesley "

So we might also agree that if we are embroiled in church conflict, it is difficult to feel the spiritual nurturing of community or even religion itself. That sense of the holy that one might find in community, especially a community at worship can be derailed by conflict and/or difficult personalities. If we can speak of salvation by character we must also beware damnation by difficult personality, especially if it is our own!  We may speak of for the good of the church as a way of thinking about how we should act or relate to one another. We must be aware of what I call selfish-ism as a major theological trend, of trying to bend the community toward our own ego needs, our own opinions, and be willing to balance the need of the individual with the wider community.

Most of us here have been turned off by  traditional religion. perhaps even a traditional God, but for whatever reason, the language used in traditional churches no longer speaks to our souls, our heart, our minds. I have come to describe our religious journeys that way as opposed to saying that traditional religion is wrong or even out of date, ; indeed, we must remind ourselves how many UUs there-around a quarter of a million and how many, say, Baptists there are -around 15 million, to see that obviously the Baptist church is the majority! They may go t their churches for the same reasons we go to ours however; they, too, want to be in religious relationship, though we would argue they use different words to describe it and their idea or opinion of of God.

Were the most well educated denomination and  we have just passed the Jews in the religious group with the highest SAT scores for high school students tests for college. Sometimes we tend to value intellectual stimulation higher than spiritual exploration in our worship services.

In the survey taken for the search process two years ago, you said the top two reasons you attended church were 
1. Intellectual Stimulation and 
2. Community:

The top two reasons you attended worship was 
1. Celebration of Common Values and 
2. Intellectual stimulation.

We value Intellectual stimulation. as though it were itself religious, but I will argue that perhaps the real reason is to separate us from traditional churches that value emotional stimulation or religious or spiritual stimulation, when we are finding that more and more we are becoming more spiritual.

So our education doesn�t help us much with our communication sometimes, though we would assume it would. We still have trouble saying what we really mean, talking about how we really feel, or even what we really believe. Perhaps we need to trust one another more before we can. Perhaps membership should involve commitment to love one another even when we disagree., perhaps we need to talk more about covenant, that religious way of promising, of deep commitment, profound purpose.

My colleague, Rev. Roberta Finklelstein, says in an essay on making church membership more meaningful, more important in our lives: "I propose the following working definition of covenant for liberal religion: Our covenant is a solemn promise that we make to each other when we choose membership in a Unitarian Universalist church. In making this promise we understand ourselves to be individuals of worth, exercising our free will by entering voluntarily into relationship with others of worth. We expect to be challenged and changed by this freely chosen relationship. The community that is called into being by our collective decision is one that deserves our love and commitment. We know that we will not think alike or believe alike. We believe deeply in the capacity of men and women of good will to walk together in religious fellowship, despite doctrinal differences. (This last sentence is taken from Conrad Wright verbatim. Wright 1989, 27) Our covenant allows us to walk together in order to nurture our own religious growth and development, to support the growth and development of all members of our community, and to work to improve the common good."

To be in religious relationship with each other, with our beloved community and with the sense of the holy, what I might call, the religious or spiritual dimension which we might enter when we gather together in worship may be our true goal, and to attain it, we must, as Jesus said, love one another as well as the world and yes, love ourselves too!. From two retired colleagues who spent many years in the parish I share two lists that I have found helpful in building up the church community.

TEN SUGGESTIONS FOR A HEALTHY CONGREGATION
Deane Starr,
Emerson UU Church
Canoga Park, CA

Always be kind to one another, even if you think meanness is justified.

Always attribute the best possible motives to one another, even when you do not understand one another's words and actions.

Promise to one another only what you really intend and are capable of delivering.

Laugh and cry together, sharing both your joys and heartaches.

Be very quick to praise one another, and very slow to criticize.

Defend one another, but avoid being defensive.

Accept one another's gifts with gratitude; accept one another's deficiencies with grace.

Do not tell one another how to feel. Remember that feelings are facts and treat them accordingly.

Greet each new day with expectation and each hour of rest with thanksgiving.

Let your eyes light up when you come into one another's presence.

And secondly- 13 Marks of A Healthy UU Congregation by  Rev. Tom Owen-Towle retired from a co-ministry with his wife Carol from our San Diego Church:

You must judge every proposed reform: does this help toward the coming of the universal community? The community church is a practical embodiment of what is holy. Theology is subsumed under ecclesiology - the growth of a soul is not of an individual but a community. The question is not "Who am I?" but "Whose am I?"

James Luther Adams said, "By their groups you shall know them." Martin Luther King, Jr., used "beloved community" as a metaphor for heaven incarnate.

Hallmarks of a healthy vital church:

A healthy congregation occupies holy ground; it's not a social club. It's primarily a site for seeking and spreading the sacred, "the deep way" as Sophia Fahs said. .. You should heal that part of the cosmos where you're planted.

A healthy congregation welcomes all souls, including all sorts - for example the Church of the Open Door in Chicago. "Am I saved?" is the wrong question; it should be "Are WE saved?"

A healthy congregation is framed and run democratically, not autocratically. Shared ministry involves rights when you become a member, rites, responsibilities and the risks. Democracy has a theological facet as well

A healthy congregation CARES for its own membership. The mature congregation banks not on fixing but on serving one another; you must distinguish between caregiving and caretaking - we are not a hospital. We do this through covenant groups, support groups, kinship circles, whatever works.

A healthy congregation embodies UNITY AMIDST DIVERSITY. All life choices are welcome; the challenge is to become diverse without becoming divided; you "DO" church by continually clarifying your mission.

A healthy congregation balances JUSTICE and JOY. It's about balance; a healthy congregation is not comprised of grim crusaders, nor smug celebrants. Mother Teresa said, "Serving is my joy, not my duty."

A healthy congregation practices the law of RESPECTFULNESS. The overarching goal of church life is right relationship, not rugged individualism; Religious education is all about respect: boundaries are kept, saboteurs are confronted, conflicts are engaged, not run from. A healthy congregation fights for impact.

A healthy congregation gazes BACK, AHEAD, AND AROUND. You don't dwell in the past but you chart it. You mark transitional moments, rites of passage of the institution as well as individual. It should be trans-generational, with healthy vital activities for all ages.

A healthy congregation spreads our version of GOOD NEWS. Outreach is two-pronged. There should be ongoing low-key evangelism directed at those in the larger society who harbor liberal religious leanings, and there should also be public witness on larger issues. The role of religious leader is not to BE a saint but to "equip the saints."

A healthy congregation produces STEWARDS, NOT OWNERS. We are all interims, all "temps," we must pass the torch on. Stewardship is a meaningful word, it encompasses the entire sweep, from our own bodies to the environment. "Keepers of the hall" is what it originally meant. Stewards "co-shepherd" a parish for a while, on loan.

A healthy congregation is wholly LIBERAL; marked by compassionate just behavior that "liberates." It is also appropriately conservative because we preserve our heritage. It is also radical because we go to the roots.

A healthy congregation keeps EVOLVING. The church knows it's always reforming and being reformed, it is the change agent but also the recipient of change. Evolution is a personal and institutional aspiration as well as a biological reality. It's a JOURNEY toward wholeness; we're not a system but a movement.

A healthy congregation is held in an ETERNAL EMBRACE. It is a mystical ideal; congregations never reach the promised land. You have to "keep your eyes on the prize." It gets back to the question of "Whose I am?"

And I conclude with two of my own lists:

THE TOP TEN REASONS FOR JOINING A UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST CONGREGATION, from our home office at 25 Beacon St. in Boston: (Actually these are all written by Arthur G. Severance)

10 Since you can believe anything you want, no one will know how crazy your beliefs are! (One can believe in the second coming of Elvis, though I wouldn�t encourage you to share that with many people.)

9.  Gives you great comebacks for the Jehovah�s Witnesses at the door!

8.  You can learn great jokes about ourselves- What do you get when you cross a UU and a Jehovah�s Witness? Someone who knocks at your door but doesn�t have anything to prove!

7.  Its more fun than mowing the lawn on Sunday morning and better for the environment.

6.  Great excuse for leaving a boring party early on Saturday night.

5.  Since there�s no concept of sin, you can continue what you were doing before you joined without feeling guilty.

4.  Since we do believe in political correctness, its fun to find something others say to make them feel guilty!

3.  It gives you somewhere to go and something to do when everything else is closed and you�ve already read the Sunday paper.

2.  You don�t have to worry any more about where to put all your extra money.

1.  Since there�s no hell, you can tell people that they will go there not you when they tell you that you�ll go to hell because you don�t believe like they do, since they do believe in hell.

Ten Serious Reasons to Join this Church:

1.    Because for the first time in a long time, you feel a religious need to be part of a beloved community where your individuality and beliefs are accepted. No one will tell you what to believe. it feels like the right thing to do and the right place to be religiously; it feels comfortable; it feels like you�ve come home.

2.    Because you are touched by the worship service, the excellent music, the readings and perhaps even the sermons say something to you that is helpful, challenging, or perhaps comforting.

3.    Because perhaps you have children and want to part of a creative and positive Sunday School program where your children can learn about all religions as well as  nature and being fully human.

4.    Because you want companionship with warm, caring, open-minded people who together form a religious search party who can cover more ground together than alone, and because the people here are very special people.

5.    Because you want to be part of a long and hallowed tradition of liberal religious thinkers who lived out their religion like Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Linus Pauling, Robert Fulgham, and even the late, Superman, Chris Reeves! and so many others.

6.    Because you want to be challenged to grow intellectually as well as spiritually. You may want to join a small group to discuss different topics.

7.    Because you believe that love is a force for good, that people are inherently good, not evil, that we are all in this together and You are glad that we are a Welcoming Congregation to Gays, Lesbians, Bi or Transsexual folk. Though not required, we often are politically liberal as well, especially around concerns with peace, social justice and the environment. We try not to be partisan, but it would help if youre a Republican to have a good sense of humor.

8.    Because you have found a religious home here, you want to help reach out to the community to reach those who still haven�t heard of us and are in need of what we offer.

9.    Because you like the fun we have here with each other and the way people show their love for one another, even when they disagree.

10.Because you realize that the Minister and others in the church are here to care about you and help you through the major life events like child dedications, coming of age, weddings, general celebrations, sickness and hospital stays, and yes, even memorial services. It is not that we are family, because sometimes we come from a dysfunctional family, and you can�t choose your family. You can choose your friends, and you will meet some of your closest friends here.

I believe that we come here seeking religious relationship, a way of becoming better people and helping to make the world a better place, more just, loving, humane. Love is a two street not a one way only; we need each other, now more than ever. Let us love one another truly, deeply, profoundly, even as we are loved back. Let us love the spirit of life and love, the religious dimension, the connection, the interconnection, the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part. We have the whole world in our hands; let us take care of it and ourselves.

Amen, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. Vaya con Dios is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is Go with God, SO I adapted it to say Vaya Con SU dios, Go with your idea or interpretation of God.

Peace, Shalom, Salaam, Abrazos a Todos (Hugs all around),
Art

 

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