I started thinking about what I would say today when I read this quote: “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Now I don’t want to take too long dwelling on who the original author is, but suffice it to say is that it has been attributed to author Anaïs Nin, the Babylonian Talmud, philosopher Immanuel Kant, professor of philosophy G. T. W. Patrick, British writer and journalist H. M. Tomlinson, Management guru Steven Covey, and Anonymous. If you want to explore who wrote this quote there is a great article I can refer you to.
“We do not see things as they are, we seem them as we are.” Have you ever had an intense emotional reaction to a situation or experience or a word/phrase/quote, while others around you seem unfazed by whatever set you off? I was the Worship Committee chair, gosh, some 30 plus years ago, at Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church (BAUUC) in Texas, I brought a speaker in, his name is David. A little background on David. He is a clinical psychologist and he was a colleague of mine at a local clinic. I had brought him in to speak to the congregation one time previously, and he talked about managing stress from a psychological and spiritual perspective. Everyone loved his presentation. David is also an Evangelical Christian, but he knows about Unitarian Universalism. He and I have talked a number of times about our differing faith positions.
This time David brought his evangelical mother and brother to BAUUC to hear him preach/speak. I was his Worship Associate sitting behind him as he spoke. David began to preach about his belief in Jesus and how everyone should believe in Jesus in order to be saved from eternal damnation; just to remind you he was preaching to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. This is certainly not what he and I had discussed when I asked him to preach.
Needless to say, I felt my gut twist and began to sweat profusely. And I could see many members in the congregation react as well, but here’s the thing, some expressed anger, some expressed confusion, some seemed to tune it out, and some seemed to be in deep reflection.
During the sermon, I felt not unlike famous Universalist John Murray’s wife, Judith Sargent Murry, when Universalist Hosea Ballou preached in her husband’s pulpit back in 1793. Murray believed in Universal salvation, but also believed in the Trinity and in purgatory as a pit stop before going to heaven. Ballou believed in Universal salvation without purgatory, and he believed in Unitarianism—that there was only one god and Jesus was a spiritual human, not a divine being. Murray’s wife arranged for one of her congregants to get up and shout after the sermon, “This is not what is normally preached in this church.” There was a point during David’s sermon when I thought I might be compelled to do the same thing.
After the service, what I realized was that I was one of those people wounded by my past Christian faith, and I did not want my bruised worldview and my unhealed issues and my precise expectations about what should be preached from our free pulpit to a Unitarian Universalist congregation to influence what other people were experiencing during the service. Their responses belonged to them. I also realized that each person in that service was given the opportunity to look within, to step back from their expectations, and consider what they would take away from this message.I can tell you David’s sermon led me to participate in an old Unitarian Universalist curriculum called the Haunting Church, They also asked participant to consider why they let go of or rejected parts of their religious or spiritual past. In this curriculum, there are multiple opportunities for reflection and meditation, and the participants are encouraged to notice their feelings, particularly strong feelings, both positive and negative. Participants had the opportunity to talk and write about those feelings. The course is about making peace with aspects of your religious and spiritual past, to recognize which aspects of your spiritual and religious past still hold meaning for you, and understanding how your spiritual and religious past influences your expectations, behavior, and decision-making in the present. This “deep dive” gives participants the opportunity to re-empower the positive and disempower the negative spiritual and religious experiences from your life.
Let me tell you a couple of stories about what can happen when you release your spiritual or religious expectations and authentically open up to an experience without trying to control it. I do have one caveat about all this. If you have had such a painful experience that it traumatizes you when you are reminded of it, I do not recommend putting yourself in a situation that will activate you. Know that if you find yourself activated during these examples or during any worship service or activity in this congregation, please take care of yourself. If you need to leave, if you need someone to be with you outside this sanctuary, if you need to close your eyes and meditate/pray, please know that we care about you and want you to find the way back to yourself, feeling grounded once again.
Rev. Marlin Lavanhar is the minister of one of our largest Unitarian Universalist churches. The church is multi-racial and very pluralistic. Marlin preached at General Assembly 2015 about an experience that challenged him to go with the experience rather than let his expectations control him. He said: “[A] white member of the church walked into my office one day. He is a staunch humanist, a lawyer, about 60 years old. He said, ‘Marlin, I want to tell you something that I would have never told anyone in this church and never have. I grew up Pentecostal and to this day I still speak in tongues.’”
Marlin went on: “I tried not to look too surprised. But I was shocked. I asked ‘How often?’ and he said, ‘Probably about once or twice a week.’ He described it as a kind of meditation that allows his mind to rest.
Once I got over my initial disbelief & quietly checked my own prejudices, I was struck hardest by realizing that this is a central part of his spiritual life, and he has spent 30 years in our congregation and has never felt he could tell anyone in our church without being judged negatively and maybe even made to feel like an outsider.”
How would you react if someone shared with you that they have a spiritual practice that seems radically different from what you might expect to exist in a Unitarian Universalist congregation? How would your expectations influence your reaction? How aware are you of how your expectations and past experiences influence your reactions today? And how do your reactions influence how welcoming you can be to someone who walks through those doors thirsting for the life-saving message of Unitarian Universalism?
I say life-saving, because I have seen people’s lives saved by finding a Unitarian Universalist congregation, a place they can feel safe, can be affirmed and loved for who they are, just as they are, loved for how they choose to live their lives, loved for who they choose to love, loved beyond belief.
Let me share another story. There was a 15-year-old girl whose mother brought her to the Unitarian Universalist church I served as a last resort. Prior to that her mother had taken her to church after church trying to find a community where the girl could feel she belonged. But the same disappointing pattern happened again and again. The girl would go into the religious education class in each church they visited and introduce herself. As the group got to know her, she would eventually share that her father was an atheist. Her peers would sometimes gasp. Many times they tried to convince her that it was her responsibility to convert her father. Often she was socially rejected. This happened in church after church, Sunday after Sunday.
Eventually her mom brought her to my church. She was scared. So many bad experiences. So hard to be hopeful. She went to the religious education class as she had so many times before. She introduced herself, and because she didn’t want to form relationships only to go through the pain of rejection again, she decided to get it over with and blurted out, “And my father is an atheist!” There was that familiar pause, but then an unfamiliar response: “Yeah,” said one of the other teens, “so is mine. Now tell us more about you.” And just like that, she was home.
Notice how her negative experiences shaped her expectations. She and her mother could have given up on finding a community where she could belong. Where she could be loved for who she was, just as she was.
Have you ever felt that the expectations people put on you got in the way of being in relationship with them? At work? At home? Here, in this congregation? Have there been times when your expectations and the expectations of others conflicted or created pain even though you each had the best of intentions, both hoping for a new friendship or an opportunity to deepen connections, to be your most authentic self?
What do you think are some of the expectations people have when they enter the doors of a Unitarian Universalist church? In this congregation, how do your expectations interact with the expectations of someone new to this congregation? Without even being aware of it, sometimes we project expectations that to a visitor might seem like a wall to climb over or a river too broad to cross, without help, without our help.
And I am not only talking about what happens in this congregation, I am also talking about our everyday lives. How do we let our expectations get in the way of relationships with people who, for whatever reason, seem very different from us? Are you aware of any of your expectations that might influence your behavior, decision-making, engagement with someone new or someone you would like to deepen a relationship with?
Now here’s a question for you: “When you meet someone, perhaps in this congregation, for the first or second time, do you leave the conversation knowing more about them, or do they leave the conversation knowing more about you, about your experiences/ideas/beliefs/expectations?” How would the way you, we, welcome a person into our lives change if you, if we were more focused them? Putting aside our expectations and trusting what unfolds.
Years ago, there was a book called Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. The premise of the book was to have a successful loving long term relationship with your spouse or partner, you needed to approach your spouse or partner as if they were from another planet, in other words each time you approached your spouse or partner, you would engage with them without assumptions that you knew anything about what was going on inside them or any expectations about how they would react, no matter how long you had been in relationship. Think about how that might work in your life, with people at work, at home, in this congregation. What would change?
This might crack open our ways of seeing others, and spring board us into new ways of thinking about and of being in relationships. It would mean doing a little less trying to control our conversations and relationships. It would involve trusting reality and the people in our lives, even when it or they don’t meet our expectations.
“God, [goddess, universe, reality, humanity, mother earth,]
give us rain when we expect sun.
Give us music when we expect trouble.
Give us tears when we expect breakfast.
Give us dreams when we expect a storm.
Give us a stray dog when we expect congratulations.
…play with us, turn us sideways and around.”
(with slight revision from a reading by Australian cartoonist, poet and cultural commentator Michael Leunig).