© Dr. Chris Schriner 2000
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
September 17, 2000

I've talked with all sorts of Unitarian Universalists all over the continent, and one frustration I hear over and over is that many of us find it hard to explain our denomination to people who inquire about it. Do any of you find yourself groping for words when someone asks you, "So - what does your church believe?"

Unfortunately, they are asking the wrong question, and to answer that question we think that we have to state some belief about the universe. Since our congregation includes many beliefs, we don't know what to say. And even if they don't ask us to recite our theology we may assume that's what they're looking for, because we are conditioned to think "religion = beliefs."

What we need to do is answer the question on our own terms. And we need to answer briefly. People don't want a long lecture.  A great rabbi was once asked to sum up the essence of Judaism while standing on one foot, that is, very concisely. Could you explain Unitarian Universalism while balancing on one foot? Stop and think about how you would do that. What would you say? What would you emphasize? And tell me later what you came up with. But since I've issued the challenge, I had better be ready to deliver, so here is - Unitarian Universalism, on one foot. [Lifts right foot. Wobbles a bit.]

Every Unitarian Universalist has the right to develop a personal philosophy of life. We can learn from all religions and all philosophies, without being told what we have to believe. We explore these issues in a caring community, united by common values rather than by common opinions. And no matter what we do believe, we try to live a good life and make this world a better place.

And now - the dismount. [Returns right foot to the ground.]

It may be that when you thought of how to explain Unitarian Universalism on one foot, your ideas were quite different from mine, and that's OK. I'm not trying to give you a rote formula that you have to memorize. I just want to point out the basic simplicity of our faith. My summary took 20 seconds, and it was certainly easier than explaining the transmigration of souls under the influence of karmic law or the theory of blood atonement for the sins of Adam and Eve through the sacrificial sufferings of Jesus on the cross.

So we can explain Unitarian Universalism in a sound bite. But what happens next? Suppose after that brief introduction, people want to hear more. "So you're free to explore ideas and live moral lives? What's so terrific about that?" People want to know how they can find a gospel in all of this, and by gospel I mean "good news." What is our good news, our positive message of healing and hope? I have three thoughts about that this morning, and the first thing I want to say is that our positive message is a message of trust.

Most faith-systems try to help people build a basic sense of trust. This is a dangerous world, and there is plenty to be afraid of. People look to religion for reassurance. Many religions address the trust issue by saying that even though life on Earth is filled with dangers and pains, there's another invisible world where trust is not an issue. Everything is always perfect in Heaven. And that may be exactly right. But this life is the one we're dealing with now! And precisely because Unitarian Universalism does not offer absolute assurance that life after death will be a paradise, or that life continues at all, our movement is forced to search for ways to be comfortable in this world that we know, with all of its dangers and limitations. This is helpful even to UUs who are pretty sure they will end up in Heaven, because again, this life is where we are situated.

I see clear evidence in the Unitarian Universalist experience that we can live out of basic trust in life as we know it, here and now. Each of us must find this sense in our own way, day by day. It is not something we can think through by giving three good reasons. We live our way into a sense of right relationship with the world - this world is my home; it's not just a brief stopover that I can treat casually. This is not a dress rehearsal. The play has already begun.

I frequently lose that feeling of trust and comfort, and sometimes it's a struggle to regain it. I am especially aware of this in recent weeks having abandoned familiar friends and parishioners and surroundings and work routines to start over in an unfamiliar place. I have a hard time feeling entirely at ease with so much unknownness around me. But being part of a gathered community like this congregation can help all of us build a basic sense that this world is a good place to be. Confronting joys and sorrows together, facing crises, solving problems, dreaming dreams and making them come true - day by day we can learn that it's OK to feel secure here where we are, even in the unknowable vastness of our universe.

Interestingly, there is a counter-trend of mistrust in Unitarian Universalism, a pessimistic streak that flows through many of our congregations - an ability to see the five doors that are closed and ignore the fifty doors that are open. "We tried it once and it didn't work." But when I look at what happens when UUs get together and attempt to accomplish something I find ample evidence for one of my basic beliefs about life, which is that virtually every moment contains a cornucopia of wonderful creative possibilities.

Going back to the one-footed summary of Unitarian Universalism, the very fact that we can learn from all religions and all philosophies is a powerful way of saying that life is rich and abundant. As Sofia Fahs put it in the reading this morning, our "beliefs are like gateways, opening wide vistas for exploration," and this implies that there is plenty out there worth exploring. A fearful religion will say, "watch what you read, or hear, or experience. You might be led astray. Beware of worldly influences. There's only one truly sacred book and millions of books inspired by the devil." That is an attitude of scarcity rather than abundance. God's word is scarce and the devil's word is plentiful. But the Unitarian poet Walt Whitman wrote, "I hear and behold God in every object." You and I can hear and behold God, or the good, or the true and the beautiful, in every object and every person, and in all of the world's great books. We have to read and listen thoughtfully, and separate the wheat from the chaff, but there's still a lot of wheat.

You can build a firm foundation for trust in myriad ways. If one thing doesn't work, try something else. Some UUs build their foundation on the Christian story of God's love as expressed in the life and words of Jesus. Jewish UUs draw upon the great teachings and rituals of that faith. Or we may value some other religion, or Earth-centered traditions of native Americans and ancient Europeans, including goddess-worship. Your pathway may be humanistic psychology or working for social justice or reverence for all living things. There is no scarcity of healing sources and resources. Life is brimming with spiritual possibilities.

Now I admit that I get a lot more out of some religions and philosophies than others, but then I remind myself that even a stopped clock is right twice a day. We could probably learn spiritual lessons by reading the phone book. Unfortunately, we don't always give our members the help and support they need in finding their spiritual pathway. Try asking yourself right now, do you know what sort of pathway is best for you? Have you thought and felt and lived that through? This is something we will talk about again.

And so my first suggestion today is that Unitarian Universalism encourages trust in life on Earth, just as we find it. In the words of the Desiderata, "With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world."

My second suggestion is that we find healing by living out our highest values. Of course all religions promote certain values, but Unitarian Universalism is unusual because it is value-centered rather than belief-centered. We are united by our commitments, not our opinions.

I won't say much about this point today, except to note that many UU value commitments flow out of the Jewish and Christian traditions of love to God and love to one's neighbor. These traditions ask us to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, holding nothing back, and loving one's neighbor as oneself also implies commitment without reservation. Regardless of how this plays out for you theologically, there is something profoundly healing about loving without limit, and those who are parents know something about that. To give our hearts completely is such an up-lifting, trance-ending experience. And it ties back into trust, because it is a deeply trusting act to love without reservation. (A value-centered community is a wonderful context in which children can grow. What a rich legacy to those who come after us.)

So Unitarian Universalism fosters trust in this life that we know, and challenges us to heal ourselves by living our finest values, particularly unconditional and unstinting love. And the last suggestion I want to share is that the very fact of our gathering as a community is an important part of the good news of healing that we offer the world. Many religions form spiritual communities so that they can feel the power of agreement, everybody saying the same thing. But Unitarian Universalist congregations are showing the world that there is another kind of power in spiritual community, the power of our shared journey, our common quest.

Many folks don't know about this sort of excitement. They assume that if you're on a personal quest, you are on your own. So they stay home and watch PBS and reflect upon the nature of existence in the splendid seclusion (and isolation) of a well-padded armchair. But most humans grow best when they are embedded in a community that stimulates them, supports them, challenges them, and loves them. And that is good news we need to share with the world.

I used to think that society was made out of individuals. From the individualistic point of view, you add up all the people and you have a culture. But now I realize that the basic building block of human community is not the individual, but subgroups in close relationship, such as families and work groups and villages.

The village is especially important, and by a "village," I mean a group of people of all ages in regular face to face relationship, with an ongoing tradition of community. It's a fairly small unit, usually 200 or 300 at most. But urbanization has scrambled the village, shredding towns and neighborhoods into a hodge podge, a human casserole. It's like dumping a box of perfect strawberries into a blender and zapping them into mush.

I have lived in Fremont only a month but I am already surprised at how many small-town human connections are still thriving here. So many people say that they have lots of relatives nearby. Jo Ann and I live in a cul-de-sac, and people actually know most of their neighbors. When we arrived someone came across the street and brought us dinner. I'm accustomed to people walking around as if trapped inside of an invisible bubble, incapable of truly encountering those they meet. People have their bubbles here too, but they seem less impermeable. Even so, urbanization also threatens the web of relationships in the Tri-Cities area, and that is one reason we need the ongoing multigenerational community we call Mission Peak.

Every village must face the question of whether is will be a closed or an open community. And the positive reason for opening up Mission Peak to new UUs is because of the energy and aliveness and personal uniqueness that they bring. Look around you at people who have joined in recent years and think of the gifts that their presence has brought you. It is a joy to grow if we want the life-expansion that new members will bring us.

Last week during the water ceremony I invited you to notice your reactions to people you didn't know and to people who seem "different." Two of you told me that you found this helpful. Try it at coffee hour today, if you like. If someone seems "different" do you withdraw, or do you move forward with interest, hoping to enhance your world by being with one who might have some different life experiences?

Unitarian Universalism is based upon a simple and powerful idea: Since no one has the final answers, each of us is free to fashion a personal philosophy, and we can do this best in a community of fellow seekers. In such a community, we can learn to trust the basic goodness of life, to find unity by being value-centered rather than belief-centered, and to create a village that draws its power from the dynamic, restless journey of search and discovery. Our movement has a positive message for the world, a healing message of trust, love, and caring community.

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