© Dr. Chris Schriner 2008
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
June 8, 2008

"Gather the spirit, harvest the power. Our sep'rate fires will kindle one flame..." So begins Jim Scott's beautiful Unitarian Universalist hymn. This image of separate fires but one flame reminds us that our approach to spirituality is most unusual.

There is nothing unusual about gathering as a caring community. But it is remarkable for a caring community to celebrate diversity of thinking. It is common for churches to deal with the great questions of life and death. But it is uncommon to explore those questions rather than to proclaim final answers. It is typical for congregations to emphasize core values. But Unitarian Universalism is atypical in being value-centered rather than belief-centered.

Our challenge as Unitarian Universalists is to create a community of shared values even though we do not all follow one prophet. We do not all read the same sacred text. We do not focus on one mythic story about the meaning of life. We do not all recite the same theological creed. Finding unity despite our theological diversity is a huge step forward, and it is a difficult step. We humans like to huddle together in cozy communities of agreement that reinforce our assumptions and our prejudices. You and I are trying to find the courage and humility to stay open-hearted and open-minded.

Since we are not belief-centered, some of us are uncertain about how we should define Unitarian Universalism. What is our core identity? And we tell jokes on ourselves about the vagueness of our religion. Do you know what would happen if you combined the UUA and the KKK? A bunch of people would sneak up to someone's house at midnight and burn a question mark on their front lawn. And what do you get when you cross a UU with a JW (Jehovah's Witness)? People who knock on your door, repeatedly - for no apparent reason. I understand that some UUs can only express their personal theology by using interpretive dance. And the Rev. Richard Fewkes writes, "It has been said that only God knows what UU's believe, and then only on ... Her good days. ... All religions have their rites and rituals. Catholics cross themselves; Jews wear a yarmulke ...; Muslims bow to Mecca; UUs scratch their heads.

Actually Unitarians and Universalists lost their identity as Christian denominations over 100 years ago when they opened up to other world religions. Later they accepted people with non-religious philosophies of life. So when the two denominations merged in 1961 they had functioned for many years without any specific theological creed. But it seems as if we are focusing more on the question of identity these days, and I can think of several reasons why this may be so.

For one thing, we are becoming more serious about sharing our free faith with friends and neighbors. Many of us have tried to prepare a so-called "elevator speech," a description of UUism that is brief enough to share during a ride on an elevator. In trying to write this little speech, some of us have discovered that we couldn't define what our movement stands for in an elevator ride clear up the Empire State Building. So we wonder about the identity of this religion.

Some have focused on clarifying UU identity in the belief that this will help us attract more members. Unitarian Universalism is growing in numbers, but very slowly. But beware of the temptation to slide into negative thinking about our gradual growth: "Something's wrong. Let's ask what's to blame. Let's feel ashamed and inferior."

I don't think blame and shame are helpful here. For one thing, our growth has been much better than most other liberal denominations. And some of our problems with membership growth actually result from our own progress. Since I became a Unitarian Universalist in 1963, I have seen many dramatic changes. Women in our ministry were once a tiny minority. Now they are a majority. The Welcoming Congregation program has helped heterosexual UUs appreciate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. And there has been an enormous resurgence in UU spirituality, including more openness to traditional religious writings and to the use of rituals, both old and new. Our ministry, our membership, and our approach to worship and other activities have changed enormously. But rapid change makes it harder to retain long-time members.

As one example, the upsurge in spirituality has troubled some of our secular humanists, and many have left as a result. I am glad that UUism keeps re-inventing itself, and I am willing to accept slower membership growth as a by-product of our openness to change. But that does not make me complacent about growth. Realizing that we have special challenges to deal with should make us even more resourceful about both outreach and membership retention.

Would it help us grow if we went back to being belief-centered? Some think our membership would boom if Unitarian Universalists united around a common statement of faith. Then it would be easy to write our elevator speeches. Newcomers would flock through our doors, drawn in by the positive proclamation of our denomination's doctrine. But there's a teensy little problem. Those who favor this approach do not agree about what belief should unify us. Some of them support a sort of vague theism. We'll all say we believe in god, but we'll all define god in our own ways. Others call for a vague non-theistic humanism. If we came up with a creedal statement that was ambiguous enough, I suppose we could satisfy almost everyone. But I am not enthusiastic about basing denominational cohesion on the illusion of agreement. It seems phony to say, "Let's all use the same words even though these words signify many different ideas."

In reality I do not think that a unified doctrine is the key to membership growth. Focusing on church doctrine is actually an overly-intellectual solution to this problem. Because many UUs are highly verbal, we can become obsessed with getting the words right, as if we believed in salvation through precise verbal formulations. If we can just find the right words, all will be well.

Most people are not particularly hung up on words. People seldom join spiritual communities because they are thrilled by a coherent statement of theology. Usually our new members are either looking for community, or looking for guidance in dealing with real life issues. People want help with what might be called the four great relationships - our relationship with ourselves, other people, the wider world of human society and nature, and our relationship with something greater than we are, something to which we can commit our lives.

In relating to ourselves we may ask, "Why am I depressed?" Or, "why does it feel as if something is missing in my life?" In relating to others, we may be coping with interpersonal conflicts, or attempting to stop trying to make someone else's life turn out okay - a lot of parents can identify with that one. In addition, people want to be meaningfully involved with the wider world, making a link between spirituality and social action. And people also want to be committed to something larger than themselves - God, goddess, the spirit of life, or all of humanity. Telling people we have a neatly worked out denominational doctrine does little to address these issues.

"But Chris," you may be thinking, "Don't traditional Christian churches have an advantage over Unitarian Universalism because they have a definite dogma that all their members know?" Well, I admit that I used to suffer from "cohesiveness envy," wishing for the unity and solidarity of mainline Christian churches. Then it dawned on me that even though Christianity has many virtues, cohesiveness is not one of them. It is the most fractured religion the world has ever known! Despite having one prophet, one book, one God, and one central doctrine, Christendom has splintered into thousands of sects, many of whom think they're the only ones bound for heaven. And Christianity's theology (which is actually rather difficult to explain) does not make churches grow rapidly. Some do grow, but others decline, partly depending on how well they help people deal with the four great relationships.

On the other hand, I agree that Unitarian Universalists do need a coherent message, so that when we "knock on someone's door" the reason will be clear. But having a coherent message is not the same as having only one doctrine. As I see it, our message is that by uniting in our commitment to certain principles, we can transform our own lives and help to transform the world. This ties in with the age-old impulse to consecrate our lives to something greater than we are. Rather than pretending that our denomination has final answers to all theological questions, we find common ground in common values. This message is easy to explain and it has wide appeal.

Recently, one of you commented that saying Unitarian Universalism is about values sounds rather abstract. It doesn't seem abstract to me, but I admit that there may be better ways to express this idea. Perhaps we need to be more poetic. If you can think of other ways to convey our identity, I'd love to hear them. My own strength in communication is clarity, not poetry, but I do appreciate good spiritual poetry.

Ultimately, I don't think the words matter as much as the energy behind the words. The best way to excite other people about Unitarian Universalism is to be excited ourselves. And for that to happen, we need to invest ourselves in the sort of exploration and growth that this denomination and this congregation offer us. Then our enthusiasm will be contagious regardless of whether our words are warm and poetic or cool and abstract, eloquently delivered or shyly stammered. You can't put that kind of enthusiasm into a brochure. Either it is real or it is not.

I believe Unitarian Universalists will become increasingly more enthusiastic about this denomination, partly because I see us focusing more and more on spiritual practices. Some of our practices are quite traditional and others are brand new. For instance, the spring edition of the UU World mentions a monthly gathering in one of our congregations where people create and share works of art: "In an attempt to bring more creativity into our lives, my family has started a monthly gathering at our home on Bosworth Street where both seasoned artists and novices can share their work. Everyone is an artist, so no one is turned away! Our art has included sculptures made from lemons and oranges, piano recitals, poetry and prose readings, and a computer calendar art show...This regular gathering adds magic to the month." (Louise Nayer, UU World, Spring 2008, pp. 21-22) Great idea. Mission Peak offers Small Group Ministry, which is now a fairly standard UU spiritual discipline. Many of our workshops and classes would qualify as spiritual practices, including Building the World We Dream About. Some day asking, "What spiritual practices do you prefer," will be an easy question for UUs to answer.

Spiritual practices help us find genuine depth in a society that almost forces us to be superficial, a culture in which people have one disconnected experience after another - read the paper, watch TV, play a video game, make a phone call, surf the Net, answer twenty emails about twenty different subjects - fragmented information inputs with no time to dive deep and feel intensely. Breaking free from the culture of busy superficiality will transform our relationships with ourselves, with others, with the wider world, and with that which gives ultimate meaning to our lives.

A spiritual practice can be as simple as identifying one helpful idea or question or theme from each Sunday service, and writing about it once a day in a personal journal. This could take as little as 10 minutes per week. It's not a matter of time - it's a matter of being conscious and building habits of spiritual attunement. You can find a good focus for reflection in virtually any Sunday service in any congregation. Stop right now and identify one thing from this service that you'd like to reflect on further. It doesn't have to be something from the sermon; in fact it may something you yourself thought of this morning. Because we live in a culture of busy superficiality, it is not surprising if we treat Sunday worship as if it were just were another one-hour TV show. But we can break through the shallow habits of this society and discern the deeper hungers of our souls.

Of course, one key to membership growth is encouraging our children to continue in Unitarian Universalism. So I think it's time to start teaching spiritual practices to our children, teaching them on Sundays and teaching them in our families. For example, the simple format of Small Group Ministry could be adapted in an age-appropriate way for older children and youth.

There is a struggle within Unitarian Universalism about whether to go back to the old-fashioned religion of "we-all-agree" or to keep creating the new dawning religion of positive diversity. We are only beginning to have confidence in a value-centered approach to spirituality. But we must not abandon the increasing number of people who are genuinely open-minded, who know that many colors make a beautiful garden.

Perhaps the greatest revolution in the history of religion would be the creation of a community of seekers who form their own opinions, but are open to the insights of others in theology, philosophy, ethics, politics, and lifestyle. Unitarian Universalism is moving in that unprecedented direction. Most people assume that if you're on a personal quest, you are on your own. So they stay home and watch PBS, in comfortable but empty isolation. But we humans grow best as members of a community that stimulates us, supports us, challenges us, and loves us. That is a life-giving message that we can share with the world.

We are not meant to walk this journey alone. We need to "gather in peace, gather in thanks. Gather in sympathy ... hope, compassion and strength. Gather to celebrate once again." The good news of Unitarian Universalism is that "Our sep'rate fires" do "kindle one flame." This flame makes just a little light now, but feed that fire, shine that light, and let its brightness warm your heart.

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