This reading is from a sermon that was given by the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar minister of All Souls Unitarian Church (Tulsa, Oklahoma). Reverend Marlin said:
The last time I had this privilege to deliver a sermon to the General Assembly was in 2008 on Sunday morning in Ft. Lauderdale.
It was just two years after I had lost my daughter, who died at the age of 3. I remember talking about her, Sienna, …and how very raw it still was then. She would be 12 this year if she had lived.
I’m going to admit something. Sometimes, even now, when I’m visiting a person from my congregation who’s dying, if it seems appropriate I’ll ask them,
“When you finally die, if it turns out there really is a heaven on the other side of all this, and you see my little girl Sienna, will you give her a big hug for me and tell her that her mom and brother and I are doing alright and we love her?”
And I’ve discovered that it doesn’t matter if the person is a Humanist, a secular-rationalist, a Buddhist or a Theist…
There is something in the very humanity of that sincere request (from a broken-hearted father) …together with the humility of facing our mortality …that allows us to suspend our disbelief. It allows us to let go of our own literalism. So that we can bathe together in the warmth and tenderness of the deep longing and the love that begged the request.
Whatever that is… that sacred place where people can meet… that binds us together in our love and our naked humanity.
Emily Esfahani Smith, author, speaker, journalist said in her TED talk: “Belonging comes from being in relationships where you're valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well. But some groups and relationships deliver a cheap form of belonging; you're valued for what you believe [or] for who you hate, not for who you are. True belonging springs from love. It lives in moments among individuals, and it's a choice -- you can choose to cultivate belonging with others.” Where have you experienced a sense of belonging, true belonging? Where have you cultivated belonging with others?
Last Christmas Holiday, I was fortunate to gather with some of my old High School friends. We hadn’t met up, all four of us, for more than 30 years. We fell in sync with one another as if we had never been apart. We joked about Dave holding his wedding outside during a Houston summer afternoon, the temperature hovering around 100 degrees with a sweltering 100% humidity, all of us groomsmen wearing heavy powder blue polyester tuxedos. I probably sweated out 5 pounds that day. As we joked and laughed about old times, it came to light that one of our group, Tim, had been holding onto a resentment for most of these past 30 years. He had once asked Dave to house him for a few days while he was moving, but Dave had refused him. As we walked along that winter Galveston beach, Tim and Dave were finally able to make peace with each other, and the stress fractures that we hadn’t even realized had been straining our friendships healed. Tim’s guardedness, which had affected the group like a mysterious itch that could never be scratched, melted away and the relationship the four of us shared was at long last as genuinely open as it had been when we were kids. We belonged together then, and we belong together now.
That sense of fitting in. Feeling like we’re a vital member of the group. Knowing that these are the people with whom we can risk being utterly ourselves, accepted and loved for who we are, exactly as we are, and for whoever we will become. That is the sense of belonging that we all yearn for. Isn’t it?
I believe that each person who walks through the doors of a Unitarian Universalist church for the first time (and hopefully at least a few times after that first time) enters wondering “could there be a place here for me?” A place where:
We sit together and I tell you things,
Silent, unborn, naked things
That only my God has heard me say.
You do not cluck your tongue at me
Or roll your eyes
Or split my heart into a thousand thousand pieces
With words that have little to do with me.
You do not turn away because you cannot bear to see
Your own unclaimed light shining in my eyes.
You stay with me in the dark.
You urge me into being.
You make room in your heart for my voice.
You rejoice in my joy.
And through it all, you stand unbound
By everything but the still, small Voice within you.
I see my future Self in you
Just enough to risk
Moving beyond the familiar,
Just enough to leave
The familiar in the past where it belongs.
I breathe you in and I breathe you out
In one luxurious and contented sigh.
In sweet company
I am home at last.
(By Margaret Wolff, In Sweet Company, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2006)
Many times there is something specific a person is yearning for, some specific risk that needs to be shared, before that person can feel they authentically belong to a faith community or any community for that matter. I got to know a man who had been on the fringes of my church for a few years. His wife had joined, but he had not. He told me he liked what he heard, but just wasn’t sure he belonged. On a whim, I invited him to attend a Christian Theology and History Book study that I was starting. After some hesitation, he accepted. After attending a few meeting of the group, he felt safe enough to say something he had been feeling for a long time. Something he didn’t feel would ever be fully accepted in a Unitarian Universalist church. He said “I am a follower of Jesus, but I don’t believe Jesus is divine. I accept Jesus as a moral teacher, a human being, and I believe in a personal god. I just don’t fit in any Christian church.” He had taken a risk, and the group didn’t blink, didn’t minimize what he said, and no one made a sarcastic comment about Christianity. One of the members of the group simply responded, “Thank you for sharing that with us.” After a pause, the man seemed to relax. The group went on discussing the Gospel of Thomas. He told me later that at that moment he finally felt the church could be his home. He joined. He also volunteered to facilitate Spiritual Direction groups at the church. He wanted to hold space for others just as it had been held for him, space for others who needed a safe place to risk being their whole selves, exploring all their spiritual beliefs, without judgement.
Every little thing that
breaks your heart
Is welcome here
Give it its due time
for the wanting it represents
the longing for something more,
some healing hope that remains
We promise no magic
no making it all better
But offer only this circle of trust
This human community
that sings and prays
This gathering that loves,
though not yet enough
We're still practicing
still in need of help
all this beauty and
all these gifts
we each bring
(by Reverend Gretchen Haley, UU Worship Web)
Sharing this experience with him changed me. I came to understand that some who join us don’t feel they can safely express their whole authentic selves, which is so central to our yearning to belong, in our Unitarian Universalist congregations. They are afraid of our uniformity. They look at us and don’t see much cross pollination going on. I came to realize that anchoring our Unitarian Universalist identities in our like-mindedness often results in a sort of spiritual blandness. Think in terms of cinnamon cookies.Some of you may know there are different types of cinnamon: Ceylon, Cassia, Saigon, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Chinese are just a few. And while they differ slightly from each other, they’re still cinnamon. And in cinnamon cookies, they all taste great. We Unitarian Universalists have a tendency to be like those cinnamon cookies. But what if we were more like spice cookies? What if we were little more delectably complex? What if we changed up our predictable cinnamon cookie by adding a dash of cloves, or a pinch of nutmeg—maybe a hint of mace or sumac or maybe even some cayenne pepper? Now that’s a cookie that is complex, that’s interesting, a cookie that keeps us coming back for more.
And the truth is not everyone feels that they can belong when they visit us. They wonder “is there a place for me in this Unitarian Universalist congregation?” and the answers they come up with range from “I’m not sure” to “I don’t think so.” You’ve seen it; I’ve seen it. Folks come, they stay for a while—perhaps they serve on a committee or teach a religious education class. They attend some social functions, retreats, parties. And then after a while—maybe their kids age out of the religious education program or they get tired of waiting to feel fully accepted— they leave. I’m not talking about the folks who move away, I’m talking about the folks who still live nearby. They just stop being in relationship with us, and we stop being in relationship with them.
So I wonder: what really sparks that sense of belonging in a Unitarian Universalist congregation? Belonging is so much more than taking an Introduction to Unitarian Universalism class, making a pledge, and signing a membership book. It’s so much more than volunteering to make coffee or teach a religious education class. All of those—and they’re important, don’t get me wrong—but all of those are things we do, and they’re part of belonging, but they’re not the whole of belonging. They’re outward expressions of commitment to the community, and we need them in order to function. But belonging is an affair of the heart. Our actions of belonging are the sinews that knit our corporate body together as one; our sense of belonging is the life blood that enriches and strengthens those sinews, that gives them heart. Belonging is rooted in a transformation that sparks inside us, a transformation that flares into life when we realize we can be our whole selves and evolve into whoever we have yet to become in a Unitarian Universalist congregation.
Each of us comes to a UU congregation with our own hurts, some of which we received in other religious communities or from people we trusted. Some of us arrived with our own prejudices based on our hurts or misinformation or fear. Some of us may arrive with a belief system that already feels safe, real, and right, and we don’t want to risk opening ourselves up to others whose beliefs feel too different from our own. Beliefs that rub up against what we believe to be true. And some of us arrive yearning to belong, eager to be our whole selves, but not ready to risk sharing some aspects of who we are. We all have some broken parts and a need for belonging, a belonging that can open us to change and transformation, a belonging that can heal and knit us into a community for a lifetime. What needs to be in place for you to feel safe enough to risk sharing all of who you are in a Unitarian Universalist church? (pause)
In his General Assembly address Reverend Lavanhar wondered if Unitarian Universalist congregations could be “that sacred place where people can meet… that binds us together in our love and our naked humanity…” I think that as a covenanted people, as Unitarian Universalists, we can be that sacred place if that is who and what we really want to be. I believe our congregations can be places where people freely search for truth and meaning. Where my spiritual yearning and your spiritual yearning can meet and merge and enrich both of us. Where we can express our whole selves/all of who we are: our pains, our joys, our hurts, our griefs, our doubts, our oddities, and our failures, using the languages of our individual hearts. Truly safe places that extend past mere tolerance into a sacred expanse of authentic acceptance of each other’s radically different ways of responding to the unfolding universe around us. Where someone like Rev. Marlin can say: “When you finally die, if it turns out there really is a heaven on the other side of all this, and you see my little girl Sienna, will you give her a big hug for me and tell her that her mom and brother and I are doing alright and we love her?” and is utterly loved for who he is. Just as he is and as whoever he may become. Where you are utterly loved for who you are. Just as you are and whoever you may become. My friends:
It is not by chance that you arrived here today.
You have been looking for something larger than yourself.
Inside of you there is a yearning, a calling, a hope for more,
A desire for a place of belonging and caring.
Through your struggles, someone nurtured you into being,
Instilling a belief in a shared purpose, a common yet precious resource
That belongs to all of us when we share.
And so, you began seeking a beloved community:
A people that does not put fences around love.
A community that holds its arms open to possibilities of love.
A heart-home to nourish your soul and share your gifts.
(By Kimberlee Anne Tomczak Carlson)