Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

March 13, 2011: “Whose Are We?”

Some years ago in Texas, there sprung up new public service billboards created by an unknown Dallas advertising agency that generated a lot of attention in Dallas AND in the advertising awards annuals. They began to make all the news sources and finally, of course, appeared on the cover of ‘TIME,’ magazine. The billboards were a simple black background with white text and no fine print or sponsoring organization was included. No one seemed to know where or who they were coming from.

        They spread to most cities in Texas, and the reason I liked them was twofold, one, they were humorous, using what I call holy humor, and two, they made you think. And since in our liberal religious heritage we are invited to interpret the 'word,' God, into the language of our own hearts and minds, I didn't get 'hung up' on limiting the possibilities of what the holy concept of 'God' here might mean.  Here's a list of the 'Top 10' variations of the "God Speaks" billboards.        

‘What part of “Thou Shalt Not…” didn’t you understand?’ -God
‘We need to talk.’ -God
‘Keep using my name in vain, I’ll make rush hour longer.’ -God
‘That “Love Thy Neighbor” thing… I meant it.’ -God
‘I love you and you and you and you and…’ -God
‘Need directions?’ -God
‘You think it’s hot here?’ -God
‘Have you read my #1 best seller? There will be a test.’ -God
‘Do you have any idea where you’re going?’ -God
‘Don’t make me come down there.’ -God

        Part of the reason we gather here this morning in beloved community is to recognize and welcome 12 new members into our midst; these new members along with the 9 who joined in the fall give us 21 new members so far this year!  We have widened our circle, expanded our relationships, and we shall all be somewhat changed, just as the church should always be changing, always being transformed by holy purpose and inspiration of new ideas, even as we work together to transform the world.

        I say that part of the reason we come here this morning is to welcome new members, because our church and our worship services call us together, to work for and support this church financially for many reasons, some known and some, well, perhaps the best way to say it is, some reasons which are mysterious and called by many names. But if we are CALLED, who, or what is it who is calling?

        At our Ohio Meadville District minister's retreat last fall, we participated in a new curriculum called, 'Whose Am I?' developed by two of my good friends and colleagues from the South West District, Burton Carley, minister of the UU Church on the River in Memphis, and Laurel Hallman, minister emeritus, at our large First UU Church of Dallas. At a time when we are welcoming new members, it is a good time to talk about why they have joined, and why we joined, as well as why we stay, and how we might be changed. Since we don't all agree on what we believe or who we believe, it is difficult to know what our religious center is, or indeed, if there even is one. That is also true among we ministers, or perhaps, especially among we ministers, because we have read and are familiar with so many different ways to describe ourselves theologically. So what or who calls us to ministry?

         The Rev. Victoria Safford writes, 'Douglas Steere, a Quaker teacher, says the ancient question, 'What am I?' inevitably leads to a deeper one, 'Whose am I?' because there is no identity outside of relationships. You can't be a person by yourself. To ask, 'Whose am I?' is to extend the question far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder, Who needs you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable? To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices? With whose life, whose lives, is your own all bound up, inexplicably, in obvious or invisible ways?'

         To even ask ourselves the question, 'Who am I?' is to think in terms of relationships from family of origin, biological family, religious background and journey, education, job, race, sexual orientation, culture, and time.

        The Rev. Jon Luopo, minister of University UU Church of Seattle told this story: The Seattle Interfaith group have a tradition of asking senior colleagues to share their life odysseys. A Roman Catholic priest was telling his and said that his life had been in large measure, a failure. He remembered the days of Vatican II and how hopeful he and his liberal priests had been that real change was coming to the church he loved so dearly. And yet; these many years later he felt that the church had if anything become hardened and deeply conservative, and his dreams had not been realized.

        Since this priest was valued among his colleagues, they were somewhat hurt and stunned by his revelation. And yet; one colleague noted that despite the severity of his words, his demeanor seemed peaceful and content. 'How can you claim that your life was a failure, and yet appear so calm and serene?' Someone asked. 'I know whose I am,' replied the Priest. 'I know whose I am.'

        So we were asked three questions; the first question is Whose am I?  2. Who or What lays claim to my heart and life?  3. Who or what lays claim to my days?

The program leader then read this, from A Deeper Faith, Jeff Golliher, p-12-13 Who Calls you?

        'You have a journey to make, a sacred journey, that I hope you'll eventually come to understand as a path to follow. This will be the most important thing you've ever done. Call it the 'Call of God,' call it the 'call of the Spirit,' call it the 'Great Mystery,' call it a 'catastrophe,' call it whatever you like, but a call of some kind is hidden within the troubles. The purpose of this call may be to draw out something hidden and wonderful within you, and if you don't mind my saying so, to bring about your awakening from a kind of spiritual slumber. I should tell you now; the journey ahead may not follow a very straightforward path, with clear cut steps to take and easily identifiable problems to solve. Why? Because the foundation of your life, the core of who you believe yourself to be, is shaking quite a bit. It doesn't really matter how secure or insecure you believe that foundation is. It is unnerving and outright scary when this happens.  At the same time, all those doubts about yourself and questions about God are evidence of a Great Mystery at work within you.'

        We used to sell bumper stickers that said, 'We have the questions to all your answers!' Like the 'Darwin Fish' for your bumper, it was a way of telling people that we are thinkers, not believers in ancient outworn creeds. So why join a church? And what's the purpose of a church where answers seem discouraged and only questions are allowed?

        I think, I believe, that there is a sacred purpose, a motivating factor, a mysterious presence, a spiritual beckoning, a spirit of love, a deep yearning for the good of all, to any religion, any, what I call, religious dimension that inspires and yes, even comforts me, found in this beloved community and others I have found in UUism.  I believe it because I have experienced it in a wide variety of what the early psychologist, William James, titled the first study of the psychology or religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience. I believe it because I was called by it twice to become a minister despite my doubts.

        I was first called to ministry when I was 12, sitting with my family in Laconia, NH Congregational Church (UCC), inspired, I'm sure by our wonderful minister, Dr. Eric Bascom. I felt chills go down my spine, and I was sure God, yes, the traditional Judeo Christian God, was calling me to ministry. By high school, I was one of the few people who knew what they wanted to be, and went to college, a UCC college, to get my undergraduate degree, then planned to go to seminary. Now I should say that I was a liberal Christian and active in social justice causes, and a folksinger! I was no 'goody-goody,' let me assure you.  But I felt called by God. If you had asked me 'Whose are you?' I would have answered, 'God's,' and I would have been sure what I meant by that, turning to the established beliefs of the Christian church, at least the Congregational version.

        But when I went away to college in those turbulent late 1960s of bay-boomer fame, I found myself and my religious journey evolving, changing, from the moth of tradition into the butterfly of a universal spirituality. I left the church and traditional Christianity but kept a religious yearning; I left the Christ, but kept the Jesus; I left the supernatural triune God, but kept the Holy Spirit, not so easily described or idolized. It was not until I was in my thirties, in 1980, that I finally went to a UU fellowship, because my friend and former college roommate, invited me. I was a humanist, I discovered, and that was a religious designation, by God. I was accepted with all my doubts, without knowing what it was I really believed, because it wasn't words of belief that counted, but actions of faith. And within a year, I again felt the call to ministry. Who called me this time? 

Sorry, I didn’t catch the name; they just left a message. That’s what I’d tell Christian colleagues who asked when I attended Lancaster Theological Seminary, United Church of Christ Seminary in PA.

        But before I actually  applied, I went through a  process of discernment, examining the pros and cons, etc., talking to UU ministers I met, and I wrote to a UU minister I had been aquatinted with because he had been a friend of my beloved youth minister in my home town. He had left Laconia to accept a call to a church in Ohio; yes, brothers and sisters, to THIS church. You can see why I felt a mystical connection with you all when some 25 years later I would be in the search and so would you!

        I share part of my religious journey to begin to answer the questions that eventually we all may want to. What I found in UUism was just as religious as the Congregational or even the Baptist, if you will, but it was a different way to approach religion, or the religious dimension, or the Holy, who or what some call God. It is not a creedal religion but one of covenant, one of what I call religious relationship with you, me and the universe- with others in beloved community, with my deeper and truest self, and with the mystery of holiness, sacred spirit, the transforming power of love. I found that I still believed and was inspired by the teachings OF Jesus, the divinely inspired human prophet, open, of course, to our personal interpretation, but not the teachings ABOUT Jesus, the supernatural third part of the trinitarian formula.

         Burton Carley wrote a prayer, titled, 'We Covenant': (11/07 Prairie Group prayer) 'The church is at the intersection of the covenant where the sacred and the human meet, where the eternal and the temporal make contact. In that crossing place the people turn aside and respond to the call of the Holy. There are many names for that reality that calls us into relationship, and many practices or paths to it. This source that is greater than us and not of our making, this gift and power that makes possible covenant, can be called universal love, the Spirit of Life, the Oversoul, God, Goddess, Ultimate Reality, the Holy, the Ground of being, Creative Power, Mystery.'

        If you look up the definition of church, you'll find the standard definition of being a 'House of the Lord,' which sounds too much to me like a British house of Parliament, or a place for Christian worship, though when you start digging into the etymology, one finds that there were many words used for it, in Anglo saxon, especially the word, Kirk, which may derive, some scholars say, not necessarily from the Greek eccliasa, meaning more simply, place for worship, since pagans also had them, and further the Latin, 'circus, circulus,' and  the Greek 'kuklos' (ku/klo$) or 'circle,' because the first congregations were always gathered in circles. So how about a beloved circle of worship? We gather together in love to worship the circle of life, the circle of mother earth. the circle of no beginning and no end.  Concentric circles rippling out on a pond of the universe. Dancing in circles. Too often religion is portrayed as a straight line of rows and rows of pews instead of circles; think of the difference between the two!

        The relationship of the sacred dimension is expressed most commonly in communal worship, a binding together in circles which support and comfort us while also challenging us to grow, both as an institution and as individuals who are part of the sacred and universal circle of life and love.

        "We covenant in spiritual freedom:" writes my colleague Kim Beach in a recent essay, 'The Covenant of Spiritual': "We find at the center of our faith an energizing mainspring, a drive for meaning and dignity implanted in every soul in every land -- the wonder of being alive and awakened to life, the grace of beginning anew. Not in the self-enclosed isolation of the self, but in the quest for a more inclusive covenant. Not in narrow mindedness or in mean-spirited debunking of things, cherished by others, but in listening for the spirit of life and truth wherever it arises. Not in fearfulness that life runs out and nothing can be done, but in the courage to turn every crisis in life into an opportunity for growth and spiritual depth."

        If the Jews are the Chosen People, and the Christians are the New Covenant, which is what the words New Testament mean, we are the CHOOSING People; but there is a calling to that very act of choosing that I will argue is a universal religious dimension, or essence, or dynamic force of love, a sacred beckoning, a divine circle encompassing us all, holding us all in the arms of the history and existence still of sacred purpose nudging us, to live lives full of meaning, love, purpose, and interdependence, a sacred circle that means we all belong to one another, to the earth as well as the heavens, to the Great or Mysterious Spirit which emerged in humanity 

when we began to speak and realize the importance of relationships, helping one another, and our connection to the sacred interdependent circle of life.

        So come all you are heavy laden and lay down down your burdens and be blest, be blest. Here in this sacred circle, you are loved and you are welcome. Be ye transformed and pass it on.

Amen, Shalom, Assalaamu Alaikum, Blessed Be, Namaste..