Rev. Bruce Russell-Jayne
August 16, 2009
Reading: "Belonging: The Meaning of Membership", excerpt UUA Commission on Appraisal
This church, Northern Hills Fellowship, is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, or UUA for short. Part of our governance structure is a group of people we elect to serve on the Commission of Appraisal. The Commission on Appraisal independently reviews functions and activities of the Association and after study and input from the congregations it suggests approaches to issues of concern and report its conclusions to the Association. Its latest report which was delivered this Summer was a proposed revision of the UUA Principles and Purposes. Delegates to the General Assembly voted to reject the revision. Rev. Russell-Jayne will say more about this in the near future. Our reading this morning is from the 2001 Commission on Appraisal report called: Belonging: The Meaning of Membership, which describes a spiritual basis for being a member of a UU congregation.
“Membership requires a willingness to honor the collective, and to give up our assumption that any one personal, subjective human experience is sufficient basis for a full religious life. We move from the individual to the collective, seeking wholeness and completeness.
Each person becomes part of that whole through his/her individual lens with the evidence gathered by our own senses. This assumption resonates with the first Source in our Unitarian Universalist Statement of Principles and Purposes, a legacy from our Transcendentalist ancestors. “The Living Tradition we share draws from many sources: [The first is] Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”
We understand membership as an organic and ongoing process. We cannot create a theology (or a church) that is completely new. All we can do is gather our various experiences of life and try to put together a community that responds to the questions, issues, and needs that those experiences raise. This process will inevitably raise more questions and bring forth different issues.
Becoming a member of the body of Unitarian Universalism is an opportunity to find honor, affirmation, freedom, commitment, and salvation. Understand salvation not as an entry pass into another world at death, but as the recognition that right here we have an opportunity to be more than we currently are, to become complete, to find wholeness, health, shalom.”
Sermon: Progressive Membership Rev. Bruce Russell-Jayne
The service this morning was advertised as “Church Shoppers Sunday” because we know there are often people looking for a church in the summer months. Families with children want to get started at a church before the school year gets into full swing. We welcome all our visitors today, and if you are church shopping, we hope you will find what you need here. Every Sunday, I try to meet all our new visitors, and I always ask, “What brought you to Northern Hills Fellowship; what were you looking for when you came here?” Often our ministry to people begins right there, by helping a visitor meet a need. I receive a variety of replies, but after many years of asking visitors these questions here is what I think most are trying to say, “We came here hoping to become more whole, to connect with other people, and to interrelate with that which is of ultimate worth. In other words, we came here to become spiritually whole people.”
Unitarian Universalism does not ask people to subscribe to a set of beliefs through which they receive salvation. We view spirituality as a life-long journey along which people may find happiness and what is true for them. We believe there are many different paths to wholeness. Each person brings her or his own needs, expectations, and personal history on the journey. We are a community of searching people who have found a religious home where people support and nurture each other. At Northern Hills members build themselves a spiritual foundation in relationship with other members and through voluntary and dynamic interaction with Unitarian Universalist values. We find strength for our spirits in this community, and we invite you to walk with us for awhile.
“That sounds very nice,” you say, “but in real life, if I become a member of Northern Hills, what do I give and what do I get? What do I learn from Unitarian Universalism? Just as importantly, is this congregation willing to accept me for who I am?” In order to answer these questions, this morning I am going to tell you about three relatively new members Peggy, Kayla, and Alberto. Each of them came to us with different needs, and each is following a different path toward wholeness. Peggy, Kayla, and Alberto are actually composites of different members, and I have changed the names and some of the particulars to preserve their privacy.
Peggy, who is in her early 60s, recently retired after teaching high school for over 30 years. She is unpretentious and friendly. She has been divorced for several years, and she takes care of her father, who, in his 80s needs daily care. She is knowledgeable about many social justice issues, and when she feels particularly strongly about one of them she actively supports her causes.
Peggy had never belonged to a church before she joined NHF. Her parents were both long time Unitarian Universalists, but they discovered UUism after she had left home. They told her how much they liked the freedom to pursue their own religious path, and she had always felt they respected her decision to do just that – on her own. The few UU services she had attended with them over the years had seemed OK, but she hadn’t felt a need to formally connect with a church until after her mother died a few years ago. Her life had felt somewhat fragmented when her mother was no longer there for her. As Peggy began to re-structure her life after retirement, she remembered how much strength she had taken from her mother’s memorial service at a UU church. It was touching, respectful and warm, unlike any other service she had ever seen. Talking with the minister as together they prepared her mother’s eulogy allowed her to recap many of the important moments in her life with her mother at a time when she really needed to tell those stories. She learned that her mother had been well-loved by several members of her congregation, and she felt she might be able to fit into a UU community.
Although Peggy is a mature adult and her parents were UUs, she had to learn basic UU religious skills. It was difficult for her to give up her leisurely Sunday mornings reading the paper in order to attend weekly worship services. She is still a little tentative about singing hymns. On the other hand, finding that UUs are open to learn from all the world’s spiritual traditions freed her to explore religious resources she had never before tried. She had been interested in Buddhism for a long time and now hopes to find other UUs to meditate with. She had read Unitarian Transcendentalist authors Emerson and Thoreau in college, and she is re-reading them now because their embodied spirituality and connections with the natural world are really speaking to her once again.
Unitarian Universalists respect the dignity of each individual, and believe that religious beliefs should not be imposed on anyone. Each of us can explore spirituality through our own personal research and practices such as prayer and meditation. These are certainly some of the key components to any program of spiritual growth, but spiritual learning cannot be done all alone. Spiritual growth involves deep exploration of our inner selves, but it also requires forming intimate relationships with other people. It is both personal and communal.
Peggy has been a member for about a year now, and she says that she really began to feel that she belonged in the church community after she started attending a covenant group, that’s what we call our small groups of people who meet regularly to intentionally build nurturing relationships and to talk with each other about things that really matter to them. Prior to joining the group, as she was trying to gain some perspective on her mother’s death, she began reflecting on her own life. In her covenant group, she has shared some of her most memorable experiences, which has helped her to piece together deeper meanings from them. She was delighted to learn how often she felt comfortable incorporating the thoughts and feelings of people in her group into her own set of beliefs. She has begun to teach one of her social action organizations the healthy, non-competitive ways of being in relationship that her covenant group practices.
Through creative interchange with other people we test our own hypotheses, and we learn from the wisdom of others. During intimate exchanges between people often something completely new emerges; new meaning that didn’t exist in the mind of either person to begin with. Peggy’s group members often tell stories in which a UU value made for a transformative and life giving experience for them. Peggy is not yet comfortable with religious language, but I might call the creative interchanges that are happening in her group “encounters with the holy.”
Our second new member, Kayla, is in her upper-twenties and since college has worked with two software startup companies. Her closest friends are an elementary school teacher, a business entrepreneur, a social worker, all in their twenties, and her grandmother with whom she lives. She has toyed with the idea of taking some time off from her high tech job and going to Africa with the Peace Corps.
Kayla grew up in a Unitarian Universalist church and some of her best memories are from the summers she spent at Youth Camp at The Mountain, a UU learning center in North Carolina. She tells a story about going on a “Trust Walk” with her friends there one night. They closed their eyes and held hands as they were led down a hill on a woodland path. They had to trust the other members of the group to help them to negotiate steps and turns in the path as they were led toward the sounds of a rushing mountain stream. Finally they stopped under a ledge that had a waterfall flowing over it. When they opened their eyes, through the falling water Kayla saw a myriad of stars, and the Milky Way was brilliant overhead. To their right in their rock and water haven were thousands of pale fluorescent Glow Worms. They were fascinating; she had never seen them before. In that magical moment she imagined them to be earth bound stars. She had a sense of being surrounded and supported by both her friends and by nature. It was the most awesome experience of her teen years, and she often recalls it when she needs to reinforce her sense of trust in people or in the beauty of world.
Kayla’s first visit to Northern Hills was for a Christmas Eve service. The sanctuary lights and candles that evening brought up feelings similar to the ones she had on her Trust Walk. Prior to coming here, she had not been a church member since high school ten years before. She had been involved with the UU Young Adult Network while in college and had learned to value that group as people who had gone beyond individual relationships to forming a community which thought critically about their life experiences, their cultural context, and their faith stance.” As a member of that community Kayla had experienced a balanced optimism because they held up a “preferred future as a source of hope.” Since college, Kayla had been looking for a similar community – one with people her age to talk about spirituality, and she hoped she might find one in a UU church. She loved the young adult style worship, and she has only sort of been able to get used to our more traditional worship services. She would love to see us start an evening service with lots of contemporary music that active young adult can get into.
As a life-long UU Kayla is quite advanced in knowing her religious identity as an individual, but her role within the church community is changing. She really wants to explore how she can act on her faith in the wider world. She wonders if going into the Peace Corps may be an over-reaction to the lack of religious values she feels in her work. For now, she thinks she will hang out with us, but she may move on pretty soon, too. She might even go to theological school where she can discern more clearly who she is as a religious being and refine her plan for acting on her faith in the world.
Our third new member is in yet a different life stage.
Alberto, in his mid thirties, has been working on an associate degree in hopes of landing a position as a safety engineer at the plant where he is currently a foreman – that is if he is not laid off because of the recession. Maria, Alberto’s wife, is a poet and magazine editor who has found sustenance in holistic living and Paganism. They became members after only a few visits and quickly became socially active. Their two daughters, ages 6 and 9 are enrolled for the second year here in the Religious Education program.
Alberto grew up in a Catholic family, one in which mystical experience was revered. He fondly remembers his childhood holiday celebrations with his extended family, which was particularly important to him because his father had died when he was very young. Once when he was helping his mother with the annual cleaning of his ancestor’s graves in preparation for their Day of the Dead all night vigil, a very strange thing happened to him. At the same moment both Alberto and his mother felt the hair standing up on the back of their necks and immediately stopped what they were doing. Alberto asked his mother, “Did you feel that dad was here?” She said that she had felt him too. Now, Alberto is not sure what caused them to sense his father’s presence then, but he thinks of his father especially every year around that holiday.
Alberto and his wife were raised in different faiths, but neither was still active in a church when they first married. When their children were small, they talked about the need to determine what beliefs to teach them. Then two years ago their older daughter started asking why they didn’t celebrate the holidays the same way that Alberto’s family did. They felt that something really had to be done because a member of the family had put pressure on her to join the Catholic Church because she didn’t understand Easter the way they did. Alberto and Maria were very happy when they learned that their younger child’s RE class curriculum was “Holidays and Holy Days.” Alberto and his wife both attended the class called “Being a Unitarian Universalist Parent” in which there was a section on Holidays and Celebrations. They now feel that they have a plan for observing holidays in their own way.
Alberto knew all about his family’s religious practices, but he had to almost start over again in his interfaith marriage. He had trouble listening to an entire UU sermon because he simply had not heard one that long before. To him religion is more than ideas. It is also a set of behaviors, practices, and ways of being in community. Alberto and his wife appreciated advice from other interfaith couples in the Parents Group who had struggled with similar issues.
Alberto iss more certain about what he no longer believes than in the beliefs and the community that he is just now trying on. His first few years as a Unitarian Universalist have been an exhilarating time – a mixture of wonder, relief, disillusionment and awe. I have encouraged Alberto and Maria to treat themselves tenderly through this growth experience, and I have asked the longer term members to share their experience, strength and hope with them.
When we witness Peggy, Kayla and Alberto, each in a different life stage and each in his or her own way on a quest for a meaningful life we recognize that life may take us through more than one cycle of discernment and reflection. Just like Kayla, Alberto and Peggy, each of us need support that is appropriate for our stage of individual faith development. Rev. John Buehrens said it this way, “To be human is to be religious. To be religious is to make connections. Each of us needs support in making meaningful re-connections to the best in our global heritage, the best in others, and the best in ourselves.”
We encourage each person to embark on a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and then to align her or his internal personal beliefs with her or his external actions. Doing this makes for a consistent self concept, a key component of spiritual wholeness. Longer term members of Northern Hills will tell you that the connections they have found here have profoundly affected their lives. Membership in our congregation brings us into intentional relationships with other people who, though diverse in their personal needs and experiences, all seek spiritual wholeness. The congregation pledges to welcome new members into our community and to walk with them on their paths to spiritual growth. As we grow spiritually, we dive deeply into the individual soul work of meaning-making, we forge intimate relationships with other people, and we form strong commitments to life sustaining values. Northern Hills Fellowship offers each person opportunities through the gift of community to develop, articulate, and act on their beliefs, thereby becoming more grounded and more profoundly human.
Now, we don’t do alter calls, but we would love to have more people with us on our journey. If you decide you are interested in joining our church or just want to learn more about us, will you please seek me out or talk with anyone on the membership committee or any Trustee?
Weiman, Belonging: The Meaning of Membeship, UUA Commission of Appraisal, UUA (Boston: 2001) 22.
Harper. “faith maturity” stages, Essex Conversations, 94-95.
Harper. Essex Conversations () 87.
Buehrens, John. The Unitarian Universalist Pocket Guide: 3rd ed. Unitarian Universalist Association (Boston: 1999) x.