An old woman is nearing the end of her life. As she closes her eyes one night, she sees a bright light and is transported to another realm. She doesn’t pass away just then, instead, she returns to the living world to find her family gathered at her bedside. She smiles and whispers to her children, “I have seen the great hereafter.”
“The great whereafter?” Her son asks.
“Heaven and hell. I have seen them both.”
The old woman goes on to explain, “I came upon a door, and behind it was hell. What I saw there confounded me. There was a dining hall filled with rows of tables, each table bearing a magnificent stew. It looked and smelled delicious, yet the people seated around the tables were emaciated and sickly, moaning with hunger.
“As I came closer, I realized that each person held a very long spoon strapped to each of their hands. With them they could reach the stew, but the spoon was too long for them to get food to their mouth. Though they tried and tried again, they just couldn’t bring nourishment to their mouth. In spite of the abundance before them, they were starving.”
She continued, “I left this horrid place and opened a new door, one that led to heaven. Inside, I was surprised to see that very same scene before my eyes, a dining hall filled with row upon row of tables, and on those tables, a marvelous stew. But instead of moaning with hunger, the people around the tables were sitting contentedly, talking with one another, sated from the abundance before them.
“Like those in hell, these people had very long spoons strapped to their hands. As I watched, a person dipped their spoon into a bowl of stew before them, but rather than struggling to feed themself, they extended their spoon out and fed the person seated across from them. This person, now satisfied and no longer hungry, gave thanks and returned the favor, leaning across the table to feed the first person.”
“I suddenly understood the difference between heaven and hell,” the old woman said to her family. “It is neither the qualities of the place, nor of the abundance of resources, but the way people treat each other.
“In hell, we are selfish. We would rather go hungry than give the people we don’t care for the pleasure of eating.”
“But in heaven, we feed each other. We put trust in those around us, and never go hungry.”
Last week I ended the service with this thought: Keep in mind that the true blessing of belonging is not only that you get to come inside the circle; it’s that you get to participate in expanding it. That is where I wish to start today as we explore how we might describe or embody what it means to us to belong to this faith community.
I want to start with this quote from “Belonging, the Meaning of Membership by the Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association. As I read this quote, I ask you to consider if this is how you experience UU Miami. If yes, why. If not, why not.
“The congregation that understands its purpose in terms of offering people a place to grow and change and to make connections will also be a congregation that understands itself to be an organic entity that also grows and experiences transformation. George K. Beach asserts, ‘People do not ‘join’ a covenanted community. [That is what a Unitarian Universalist congregation is. We are a covenanted community—a place where we make promises to one another about how we will be with one another, how this congregation will function, and how we will interact with the community beyond these walls, [so, people do not join in a covenanted community] rather they constitute it; there is no [covenanted community] without them…and each time new folks join, the whole is literally reconstituted.’ A member of a local congregation opined that he understood membership in terms of how strongly one can influence the destiny of the group. If people enter into the membership experience with the expectation that change will be the result, the structure of our congregations needs to be one that allows for flexibility and change. If in fact we understand the congregation to be reconstituted with the addition of each new member, then it can be no other way. Every person brings a different set of experiences and expectations and ways of doing things to the mix. The result will always be different, surprising, and vital. A vital, growing, changing congregation is bound to look outward as wellas inward. In addition to supporting the spiritual growth and deepening faith of individual members, it will always be asking the question about how it fits into the larger community. By words and deeds that are visible and audible, a healthy congregation shows people what Unitarian Universalism is at its best. You might say that this is the most powerful form of evangelism: demonstrating the possibilities that liberal religion offers simply by being the way we are in the world.”
How do you experience being a visitor, friend, or member of this faith community? How have you felt your influence in this community? How do you describe UU Miami and your connection to it to others? Or do you describe UU Miami to others at all?
You might have heard of UU Miami being described as a Social Justice club, not really a church or faith community because we don’t have a holy book or single tradition that we draw spiritual grounding from. Unitarian Universalism doesn’t advance a belief in a god, gods, goddess, goddesses, higher power or higher powers, and this can support the concept of UUism being a club rather than religion. If you haven’t heard this yet, I assure you that you probably will sometime. Or you may have even wondered it yourself. Your take on this boils down to how you define religion. Legally and theologically, a religion doesn’t have to have a belief in a higher power or a holy book or single tradition. A religious community is a group of people who come together to explore the ultimate questions of existence, to affirm values, or as we say Principles, for living, and to explore, in community, beliefs, faith, spirituality, ethics, morals. We look inward—our thoughts, feelings, experiences--, consider together in community what we find within, and affirm how we will impact the world through our living. So no, we are not a club.
When I first attended First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth, Texas 35 years ago, I felt I was home. Homecoming is an emotional feeling. A comfort, finding a place that I hadn’t known existed, but had always longer for. A place I could be me without worrying how anyone would react. For me, a Unitarian Universalist congregation is a place where I can have disagreements over beliefs and still find a deep kinship—I can tell someone I believe there is a divine essence in all things and they can tell me, respectfully and without ridicule, that they do not believe in any kind of divinity, and we are still in community with one another. A place where I can be known for who I am and accepted for who I will become. A place where I can learn, grow, change, along with others on their own journeys. Have any of you experienced sense of home when you found a UU congregation?
And yet, thinking of First Jefferson as my home, I was also aware that a home can be, and certainly was for a time, a sanctuary, a place that I came to and still come to, in UU communities across the country, where I am safe, protected and insulated from the outside world that often does not share my values. I wonder if any of you felt this way? Having a safe place to be who you are is important, but I have wondered what the consequences would be for me if I see this community as simply a safe haven. Are we a spiritual home? Maybe, in some ways.
As I continued in Unitarian Universalism, I joined Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church. And began to feel that this new community was my spiritual family. I was so close to many of the members. I called on them when I was struggling or in crisis. They were my chosen family. I told them I was going into ministry right after talking to Martha, my wife, and my sons, Aaron and Jacob. These were the people who joined me in exploring my understanding of what being a white heterosexual male meant to me ways to live that out in the world while affirming and uplifting people who were different than me. In a real sense I grew up in this chosen family.
Yet, I grew up in a biological family with a raging, violent, alcoholic father, and so family has many other meanings for me, some of them not particularly pleasant, and perhaps that is true some of you. I learned that intimacy and vulnerability can lead to hurt and pain. I learned that family is not always a safe place. I learned that I might have on to take on a role that I was not ready for or perhaps should never have to be ready for, like savior. I learned that I needed to be hypervigilant to protect myself and others in the family. I still sometimes refer to whatever congregation I belong to as my spiritual family, but I’ll admit I do that with some hesitance.
When the book “Belonging, the Meaning of Membership by the Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association” came out in 2001, I found another framing of how I might understand my relationship to the UU congregation I belonged to; I was part of a spiritual body. “A ‘spiritual body,’ after all, is literally a breathing body, that is, a living thing. And it is participation in this dynamic, this life, that over time makes one in the deepest theological sense a member and at the same time transforms an agglomeration of individuals into a community.” We are all “influenced by birth and death, by affection and alienation, by hurt feelings and reconciliations, by generosity and cold-heartedness, by anger and enthusiasm, by all the exigencies and contingencies of life” together. In essence we are a living breathing being—I have felt us breathing together, gasping together, our heartbeats beating together, and of course our singing together, in harmony, seemingly as one body.
And yet, as I have continued my journey in Unitarian Universalism as a UU minister, as a spiritual leader I have sometimes experienced more dissonance than harmony, more cancer than a healthy thriving bodies, more stomachaches and heartaches in my work with UU congregations. I have experienced differences of vision and mission and direction in other congregations that I could not stomach. I guess that sometimes comes with the territory when you get into the guts of the body, the detailed workings of a church. I have seen devoted members of other congregations leave a church over differences of opinion over a building, over paint color, over how to fix something. I have seen members hurt other members in other congregations, which will happen in any community, but afterward there was little authentic movement toward forgiveness, reconciliation, or healing. Is a UU congregation a living spiritual body? In some ways yes, if the congregation stops whatever work they are doing, whatever mission they are on, however they are living as one body, to attend the hurt, the ouches, the pain in any part of the body, be they visitor, member or friend of the congregation. Paying attention to pain, dealing with pain is essential to being a healthy body. If that’s what is happening, I can certainly see myself as part of a spiritual body, here at this UU congregation.
What makes your UU congregation a heaven or a hell for you? Thinking back on the story of the people burdened with long spoons strapped to their hands, when we are part of a community in some sense we are all the people with long spoons strapped to our hands. The spiritual and ethical sustenance we offer and receive is defined by the structures we have in place. I’m talking about things like our governance, the way we worship, how we support our religious exploration programs, our volunteer and the expectations we have of paid staff and their expectation of friends and members of this community. These are in place because they provide structure for what we can accomplish, but these structures are also the spoons strapped to our hands. For me, when these structures become transactional in nature, “what is in it for me”, it feels like hell. When we focus on primarily what each of us gets from these structures, we can become defensive or angry when we don’t get what we want or things are not done the way we think they should. This can lead to spiritual starvation, or hell. When we instead consider how we can support each other and improve the world, how we will help each other and the world, how we will fulfill our mission together, the structures that are foundational to the functioning of the congregation can lead to spiritual enrichment, to nourishment. Choosing to use your spoon to help others in your spiritual community requires some selflessness and self-sacrifice. It requires some flexibility and compassion. And it requires a centered community-wide vision of who you want to be as a congregation, so that the structures manifest that center. We have to be concerned with what you as individuals do with our solitariness in relationship, and with our togetherness. We must create a vision that is greater than any of our individual lives, something aspirational, something long-lasting, something we can achieve. Then we have to communicate that grand vision through our structures, to each other, and to the world. This vision needs be deep. It needs to be enduring. It needs to be yours.
Mary Hunt is a contemporary feminist theologian associated with the Women’s Alliance for Theology and Ritual. I found something in her writing about friendship that speaks to me about what qualities we need to create a grand vision with deep and enduring value. She starts with an understanding that relationships reveal what is of ultimate worth to us, voluntary association, freely given with these four elements: love, power, embodiment, and spirituality. “Love is the intention to recognize the drive-in relationships towards unity and community. Love is a commitment to deepen bonds between persons without losing individuality. Love is the power that allows for unity in diversity.” “By power, Hunt means the ability of individuals to make choices. Power is individual and personal. It is also social and structural. In a congregation built on a theology of [relationships], justice-seeking friends exercise their personal power [in community]…” “Embodiment is included in the model to acknowledge the fact that all of our reactions and relationships are mediated by our physical bodies. [The needs and limitations of all of our bodies need to be acknowledged and attended to. This reflects our First Principle, the worth and dignity of every person. We must remember that we use our bodies to live out our vision.] “Spirituality is defined not as a private, ethereal quality but as an intentional process of making choices that affect self and community…Spirituality is attentiveness, focus, awareness of how our behavior and choices affect the people around us. [Thus] love, power, embodiment, and spirituality become matters of ultimate concern and commitment.”
Consider my friends, the qualities, not the metaphors, that we need for a healthy, thriving, vision-driven congregation. What are the qualities and values you believe we need to affirm, reaffirm, and yet affirm again in this community? What vision do you as an individual have for this congregation? Get ready to revisit our communal vision. Get ready to co-create a grand vision for the future of UU Miami. Get ready to embody that grand vision fully. I’m ready. Are you?