© Bob Meyerson
(member of Starr King Unitarian Universalist Church of Hayward CA)
© 2009. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
March 8, 2009

A few years ago, in an interview with UU world magazine, Coretta Scott King noted that she and Martin had a great affinity to Unitarian Universalism, and had considered becoming a part of that faith. But they felt their message was best delivered when in the language of the audience. This precept is the heart of my message today. If we wish to make others aware of our values, isn't it incumbent upon us to phrase them in familiar language? Is our failure to make inroads with many groups because we have nothing to offer? Or is it because we are not speaking in the correct language?

At the 2003 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Boston, UU President Bill Sinkford announced that he would like to see the re-entrance of words of reverence into Unitarian Universalist services. To me, this didn't seem like a very controversial idea, but I found that many were astonished, shocked, and dismayed. The Boston Globe headlined their coverage of the General Assembly with reference to this 'bombshell.' Front page news! Was mutiny at hand? What a bizarre and threatening concept: words of reverence spoken in a church! What was the world coming to? Was this the death knell for Unitarian Universalism? In speaking to many of my friends, one might have thought so.

I believe that this church is wide enough and deep enough to accommodate the entire spectrum of belief and non belief. And I think we need to be unafraid to allow others to express their visions in language which is comfortable to themselves, without feeling a sense of 'not belonging.' And to take it one step further, I don't believe we need abandon spiritual language to the forces of fundamentalism.

The UUA comprises churches whose membership consists of athiests, believing Christians, pagans, Jews, agnostics, Muslim believers, Buddhists, and humanists. Undoubtedly I've left someone out...forgive me. And not everyone here (probably no one) is completely comfortable with everything we do and say. We proclaim diversity and we embrace our differences. Where else can we disagree, not only with each other, but with the very precepts of our church?

We need to decide, before becoming advocates, whether we are interested in growing. The truth is that if our churches do not grow, many will cease to exist in a few years. Yet there is reluctance for some of us. It sometimes seems to me that we may be practicing a novel form of elitism.

There are many progressive institutions with whom UU's share beliefs. but, if we are to be considered a religion, I suggest we not be frightened by religious language or thought. And we should be tolerant of that with which we disagree. If we eliminated everything that some UU objected to, nothing would remain.

So...with all this wonderful diversity, how do we become advocates for Unitarian Universalism? I have found it difficult to make a real effort to bring others into this church. As a part of my own 'elevator speech' I often note that I truly believe that this religion has at its core the potential to save the world. Further, I believe that there are many people who, if they knew us, would embrace us. I have believed in UU principles all my life. Yet I didn't come to this faith until just a few years ago.

In examining my own reluctance to proselytise, some very obvious causes of my hesitancy come to light. In the few instances where I made the attempt, I found myself nearly apologizing. Recently, an old friend asked me about the tenets of my faith. I handed him a copy of our seven principles. He mused over them for a few minutes, and looked up at me with a quizzical expression. "I don't see any reference to God. Doesn't your church have a belief in God?" I tried to explain that Unitarian Universalism accepts everyone's ability to define his or her own personal concept of God, or to reject it outright. I stumbled over my words. I was really an inept missionary! But it was a learning experience. I began to wonder what was making me so uncomfortable about articulating ideas in which I so strongly believe?

After some introspection, I concluded that there were a number of reasons. this chosen faith would be much easier to explain if all UUs shared identical beliefs. But we don't and that lack of dogma, while a strength for us, does not lend itself to easy explanations. We are the simplest, and at the same time the most complex of religions! There seem to be several other hurdles with which I have had difficulty. One was that while most everyone I spoke to was familiar with the term "Unitarian Universalist" there existed vast misinformation about who...and what...we were. I've heard from others: We are part of the Unification Church. We are the Unity Church. We are a late 20th-century cult. We are the Universal Life Church. And on and on. And while as a church we are none of these, we welcome here many who have been, and may still be any of the above.

I heard; "Oh I know about your religion. You people don't really believe in anything, do you?" From another: "You Unitarian Universalists seem to profess belief in everything. You celebrate Christmas, Easter, the summer solstice, paganism, and all the Jewish holy days."

It can be difficult to preach a liberal and open religion. Dogmatic principals are so much easier! And the very precept of Unitarian Universalism is to respect the beliefs of others. So what do I do? What do we do?Now, before I go on, I think it's important to clarify my next few remarks. I believe that every religion is capable of good works on this planet. Look at the charities founded by Christians, Jews and Muslims. Ponder the fact that without Islamic Samaritans, many in this world would go hungry. Catholic charities. B'nai Brith. So many things organized religions do for humanity. And the fact is that many diverse religious organizations have found that cooperation is mutually beneficial. The very site where this worship service is being held is testimony to that. But face it. Many people become "religious" for one selfish reason - immortality. Fundamentalists have siezed control and become the face of many churches. And it's sad. They've become self absorbed in their own sense of infallability, and bigoted towards those who disagree. So please, keep the following in perspective.

I think we should face a few facts before we decide to whom we should be talking. Unitarian Universalism, unlike many religions, is a life-centered faith. Life-based. When perverted by zealots, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and to a lesser degree, Buddhism, the eastern religions and tribal religions have become death-centered religions. I know many UUs who have some concept of an afterlife, some who don't, and most, yours truly included, who simply have come to the conclusion that they don't know: cannot know, and so put their minds to more solveable issues. We do what we do here because of what happens on this planet during our lives, or if we're lucky, how our efforts might favorably impact the world after we're gone. But Unitarian Universalism has no 'point system' or 'road map' to eternal bliss. Getting a person who believes in that road map to explore our questioning faith can be a formidible task. It's a selling point that death-centered religions have over our life-based faith. And it's a subject that always comes up.

In my days in the Navy I had ongoing theological discussions with a buddy of mine. He was a sincere and thoughtful church-going Christian. When I use the term "thoughtful," I mean willing to listen as well as speak (wouldn't that be a valuable trait for us all?). It began when he was spreading his gospel, and thought my soul might be worth saving. In explaining my feeling that one must suspend rational thinking to accept faith, the dialogue was joined. I didn't realize it then, but I was taking on a very UU stance. Months later, my friend told me; "Bob, you've helped me examine my belief hold it up to scrutiny. I liked my faith as it was. It was comforting and reassuring. I knew - yes knew! that whatever happened to me, that just by having faith, I would realize an eternal and better life later. Now I don't have that certainty. Maybe I would have come to these conclusions on my own, but I resent that you led me to this."

I was uncomfortable in having assisted him in examining his fundamental beliefs. But I made two mistakes. My accepting responsibility was arrogant and wrong. My friend's mind was his to change, and likely he'd have come to this on his own. And I think it is a mistake to tell people they must discard their traditional ideas about faith in favor of ours. And a mistake that would put us in the same boat as those religions that dictate to people exactly how they should believe. I don't want to be in that boat! If I could revisit that friend, I would tell him that I don't think his former beliefs are incompatible with Unitarian Universalism. Hopefully he discovered that later.

While they tell us otherwise, I don't believe the fundamentalists are in the majority. The fastest growing religious segments may be the most dogmatic, a bulwark of certainty in an uncertain world, and may be a comfort in our complex society. But they deny the greatest gift of human kind: the ability to think - a questioning curiosity.

Many attend church through habit, or a sense of obligation, or because they want to instill a reverent 'something' in their children. Others have eschewed any religious attachment, perhaps willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And those people might find a spiritual home here.

I don't think that we can afford to take the provincial and elitist position that we don't need to reach out to others; that we want to restrict membership to those whose beliefs only mirror our own. (And what are those beliefs? We don't project as a single surfaced mirror. Our beliefs are more like the mustifaceted prisms of a diamond.) If we insist on uniformity, we would be practicing the same dogmatic behavior as those who say; "This is how we believe, and this is how you should, no, must believe. We have all the answers, and we will teach you." And aren't we sometimes being just as rigid in not accepting other ideas? Are we secure enough to listen to the words 'reverence,' 'god,' spirit,' or 'faith' without it representing a threat to our views?

I know a man who describes himself as an athiest. His notion is that since man created god, every face he sees is, in fact, the face of god. He interprets god in this way, and has no fear that the word will somehow bite him! Could there be a more deep and profound UU statement?

We Unitarian Universalists don't hold out the guarantee of eternal paradise. It's a selling point we don't have, and we need to understand it is a compelling point. Sooner or later (usually sooner) it is a subject that comes up in any religious discussion. Many fundamentalists place the question of an afterlife as the sole reason for religion. This death-based philosophy perverts religion. My own answer to what I, at least, believe about the hereafter is: "I am completelly in favor of it!" But if everything I do is simply to ensure my personal eternal bliss, I would have to question whether my deeds are from my heart, or simply an effort to gain points? What we do offer is a faith which nurtures and liberates the mind. And if there is a god, he or she is applauding that we are using the gift of reason; the brain with which we were provided. No, we do not offer the guarantee of personal eternal life, but neither do we threaten eternal damnation. this faith is based on life, not upon death.

Now, when the subject of religion comes up I arm myself with our principles; the history of Unitarians and Universalists in America is rich. We need to know and tell our friends that ours was the first religion to openly oppose slavery in this country. That long before the Revolutionary War, Unitarians pleaded for equal rights of women. That we were the first to ordain women as ministers. That over thirty years ago, our church took positions against discrimination for those of non-traditional sexual orientations. And on and on, standing for human rights consistently; That many of the founders of this Republic expressed Unitarian Universalist views. Is it recognized that the founder of the Red Cross was a Unitarian? that Emerson and Thoreau were Unitarians? That a Unitarian minister named Thomas Starr King almost single-handedly kept California out of the Confederacy during the Civil War? This is part of our spiritual heritage, and I for one am proud and honored to share it with others. While it may seem implausible, I think we can speak to those who are affiliated with other churches, mosques or synagogues. While we do not systematically offer the assurances or the threats of the death-based religions, we certainly can spread our own "good news." My home church is already an established member of the area's spiritual community. And let me suggest this: rather than be defensive about comparing our faith to the death-based religions, rather than tell people what we are not, let's tell them what we are! What we believe and why we think our faith can save the world. Can't we do this in language that is familiar, and does not attack their beliefs? Do we seek to have dialogue? Or do we give the impression that not only do we know it all, but that you know nothing. and your beliefs are not valid.How do we find common ground if we start with a sharp blow to the ego? Why not start with the fact that we believe in separation of church and state, and we believe that concept is under attack. And further that the mingling of church and state weakens both. Let's state that we believe in freedom, and in less interference in our personal lives from government. That we believe there is no excuse for people in this country to go without adequate food or health care. And let's tell them that we feel the fight for marriage equality is every bit as vital in this century as the fight for equal opportunity and racial justice was in the last.

As my belief in this faith which can save the world grows, I find myself more willing to proclaim my commitment. I don't think that Unitarian Universalism seeks to negate the beliefs of others, but it will cause the holder of those beliefs to examine them. This Unitarian Universalist faith does not 'take away.' It can enrich, it can add, and it may foster introspection and evaluation of held beliefs. But examination is not the same as being dismissive and disrespectful.

I believe we all have some sort of belief system that draws us to this church. Yet, at the same time, we seem reluctant to spread the news that our potentially earth-saving faith is open. How many people you associate with outside of this church are aware of your religious affiliation? I am not suggesting that the workplace is an appropriate forum to be passing out literature or lighting a chalice. Actions such as these are as wrong when we do them as when others seek to put religious icons in our schools and court houses. No, we don't do that. But when matters of faith arise, let's not shrink. When someone asks you about how you spent Christmas, or Ramadan, or Yom Kippur, take it as the unlocking of a door. Be prepared to open the door for them. And maybe, just maybe, someone you know is thirsting for such a faith.

Most of us have had various religions solicit us from door to door at home. In their belief system, they are attempting to do us the greatest favor of our lives. But now, when they appear, I ask them if they would like to hear about my faith - what it is - why I believe it can save the world. And there's always a copy of UU World magazine to offer nearby. So far, I must admit, I've had no takers. Probably not the most likely waters to fish in.

There are many reasons to use reverential language, especially when speaking to those of other faiths. If one were to go to a foreign country to spread an idea, religious or otherwise, would it not make sense to learn language they understood?

And there are other benefits to openness. We are often allied with others to whom we have no obvious affinity. In 2003 the hotel workers in Boston went on strike. The issues were wages and benefits. The two most influential organizations to put public pressure on management were the Unitarian Universalist association and the Catholic Church. Working together.

There is little upon which Unitarian Universalists and Catholics agree. Yet it is important that when we have common issues, we can ally with those who share common goals. But we need a common language. And if we are talking to religious people, we should not be afraid to use familiar language. The campaign in Boston led to a settlement. I don't think one Catholic converted to Unitarian Universalism, and I don't believe any UU decided to adopt Catholicism. But the hotel workers got a contract.

Finally. this Unitarian Universalist faith of ours is powerful. It is as real a faith as any other on the planet, perhaps stronger and more powerful because it is willing and quite able to embrace, not destroy, other faiths; to enfold all of them into a universal force for progress and justice. While my evangelistic efforts have not produced much up to now, it has been worth the effort. It tells me a great deal about myself, and that self knows that if this Unitarian Universalist church and the nationwide and worldwide UU Association can grow, it will be good, not just for us, but the entire world. This life-based religion can indeed save the world. but only if the world is aware of it. Only we can accomplish this. May it be so; blessed be; and amen.

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