All year long, we have been on a voyage of aliveness, in search of truths from the various world’s religions. Today, our voyage culminates with Unitarian Universalism—and I say “culminates” intentionally, because one of the distinctive features of our faith is our core conviction that no one book or tradition is in possession of the entire truth. Truth can be found in multiple sources, and it is our joy and duty to seek it out, wherever it is to be found.
It is Unitarian Universalism, then, that gives us our reason and rationale for looking towards Hinduism and Buddhism; Confucianism and Taoism; Islam and Judaism; and Christianity and Yoruba religion. Spending an entire year doing this was an act of faithfulness, and an expression of our spiritual way.
And now we finish by taking a closer look at ourselves, our history, our journey.
I could begin 500 years ago, when what the King believed was what each of his subjects was required to believe, on pain of persecution and death.
Equally, 500 years ago, what the preacher preached was what each of his hearers was required to believe, on pain of being declared a sinner and cast out, or worse.
But then a great spirit named Queen Isabella asked an outrageous question.
This Queen lived in Eastern Europe, in a region of today’s Romania called Transylvania, and her outrageous question was, “What would happen if the government granted protection, not persecution, for Catholics and Lutherans and Calvinists and Jews and Muslims and Unitarians alike?”
Her question included more: “What would happen if preachers no longer saw congregants as empty bank accounts to fill with all the coins of their professional wisdom, but rather as fellow journeyers of life, and the preacher proclaims wisdom as best as he or she knows, and congregants are informed, provoked, maybe even inspired, but in no way should they be afraid of disagreeing?”
In other words: what if religion could be something very much different than it is today? Something allowing greater freedom, and the right of individual conscience?
Soon afterwards, Queen Isabella died. But her son, who became King—King John Sigismund—kept her dream of religious freedom alive and made it real and called it the Edict of Torda.
That is how we got our main start as a faith, and if anyone asks you how old our liberal religious tradition really is, it’s 450+ years old. The Edict of Torda became law in 1568. So our liberal religious tradition is 453 years old, exactly.
That’s the historical start for our communities of faith, and often, it’s this chapter that gets focused on, or chapters that directly followed, especially chapters in the 1800s, featuring such great names as William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Olympia Brown.
But for our purposes today, I want to fast forward to the latest chapter in our history which often goes unexplored. This latest chapter began in 1961. In 1961, we saw the union of two traditions of liberal religion, Unitarianism and Universalism. For more than a hundred years, the traditions had noticed deep resonances and echoes in each other, but it was only in 1961 that the two became one, and that one was greater than the sum of the parts, a completely new creation.
This is the chapter in our long history I want to talk about today, leading up to the present moment.
At General Assembly in 1961, once the final vote had been taken to consolidate, 60 short years ago, the thousand plus delegates representing congregations across the land, meeting in Boston, held a worship service, and it began with the song we sang a moment ago: “As tranquil streams that meet and merge / and flow as one to seek the sea, / our kindred fellowships unite / to build a church that shall be free.”
The thousand plus delegates sang this song, about freedom, and then sang it again, and again, and again, as hundreds of Unitarian ministers and Universalist ministers who were now and forevermore Unitarian Universalist ministers processed into the room, and there was not a dry eye in that place.
To paraphrase Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Journey,” they finally knew what they had to do, and they did it, they began, and there was no going back.
Though it set the whole house trembling. Though people felt the old tug at their ankles, tugs of fear.
Mary Oliver’s poem says it all so well….
As an official denominational report puts it, “Some Universalists feared that the Universalist identity would be swallowed up by the much larger Unitarian body. Some Unitarians feared that the word Unitarian would lose its cutting edge when it was joined with the word Universalist. They felt that the two big words joined together would be too much of a good thing!”
Yet again, “Some Christian theists in both denominations feared that the coming together of the Universalist and Unitarian Humanist groups would threaten the Liberal Christianity cherished by some of the most historic churches in both denominations. Some Humanists in both denominations felt that the coming together of the Universalist and Unitarian Christian groups would militate against the advance of Humanism in the new Association.”
That’s what the official denominational report said. All these fears, and more, tugging at the ankles, and these fears are still alive in the hearts of some.
Each of them, crying out the words of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mend my life!” In other words: Give me an upfront guarantee that the actions you are about to take will be perfect and there will be no mistakes, before you go any further!
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
Unitarian Universalism kept on moving forward, spurred on by a Spirit that embraced a new world in which all the various great world religions, once hermetically sealed-off from each other, were now, via transportation and information technologies, mixing and mingling freely. A Spirit made us restless to use our freedom to create a religion for One World.
Despite the fears, we kept on, we knew what we had to do, because a Spirit also made us ache for the physical, social, and spiritual liberation of all, and also for the planet’s liberation. The ancient travesty of the haves and have nots, insiders and outsiders, privileged and oppressed was vivid for us, and we were not satisfied with promises of justice in some hereafter. We knew freedom is to be used now, to create love and justice now, in this world.
A Spirit impelled us forward, to use our freedom well. And in the beginning, in the early 1960s, everything seemed golden. In 1960 President John F. Kennedy said that “the torch has been passed on to a new generation. […] Here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” We thrilled to that! Our first association president, the Rev. Dana Greeley, spent money to the tune of that, expanding programs and expanding staff so we could rise to the challenge.
We knew Transcendental Meditation before the Beatles introduced it to the world. We rallied to the aid of the Civil Rights movement and we were there at the front of the line in Selma.
It was a golden moment.
But it would not last. Adversity came all too soon, for us and, in truth, for all other liberal religious groups. It was the 60s and the times were a’ changin.’ Kennedy was assassinated. Dr. King was assassinated. The Vietnam conflict polarized all of America and therefore, of course, our congregations were polarized. We were also polarized by our differences on how to work for racial justice in the face of the Black Power movement.
The early 60s were golden; the latter 60s were lead; and we were just a baby religion, vulnerable, troubled by the turmoil in the world which was felt with all rawness at home in our congregations.
Money tells the story. It always does. When our second association president Robert West assumed office in 1969, he found a UUA that was in dire financial crisis. Our congregations had not grown—and people’s giving had not grown—despite all of Dana Greeley’s expensive program and staff expansions. He had overpromised and underdelivered. So, to save our bacon, Robert West’s first move was to cut the UUA budget and staff by 40%–he did what he had to do–but it did not make him popular, and there are no warm fuzzies to be found in this part of our religious freedom story.
It’s just as Mary Oliver says: the wind—the wind prying with its stiff fingers at the very foundations. It was
… a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
Adding to the wildness of the world was the wildness in our Unitarian Universalist hearts. In the golden years we had sky-high expectations for our religion of One World Transformed. After the vote that married Unitarianism to Universalism and the two became a one that was more than the sum of the parts—something unique and different in the ecology of all the world’s religions—one of the speakers, the Rev. Donald Harrington, said this in a sermon: “Looking forward from this place, what do I see? I see the need for us to brace ourselves to absorb the shock of the incredible growth which will accompany our newly-won relevance. Let there be no mistake in our minds about it!” Echoing this was UUA President Dana Greeley in an interview with Time Magazine, saying, “We have thought of ourselves as a tiny denomination; but with adequate vision and will, in a quarter of a century we could become a denomination of at least 1,000,000 members.”
But instant success didn’t happen. One of our prophets, Henry David Thoreau, once said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” But we somehow seemed to have forgotten about the slow, meticulous, hard work of building foundations. We didn’t get the instant success we felt entitled to, and so the wildness of our Unitarian Universalist hearts made its impact felt, primarily through unkindness and meanness to each other.
There was rampant anti-institutionalism, in particular: people (ministers!) actually saying that the best thing to do would be to blow up Boston headquarters! As the Rev. Eugene Pickett, minister emeritus of the congregation I served in Atlanta and once-President of the UUA, once observed, we are “a contentious group of people … often harder on ourselves than are our fundamentalist critics … so easy to be cynical and mistrustful.”
We became very good at forming circular firing squads.
This would not be the first time, or the last.
A Spirit was moving us, absolutely: to be a religion for One World that worked for the transformation of person and planet. That’s what religion is for: to create people who feel deep in their bones that they belong to something larger than themselves. To create people who feel called to spread revolutionary love and holy beauty.
But we found ourselves getting in our own way. Missing the boat.
[It was] a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own
In other words, how else can a people learn what they’re really made of, except through adversity? Except by passing through the fire?
Despite all the adversity, from beyond us, as well as from within us, Unitarian Universalism just kept on keeping on. And through it all we came to learn better how we might serve the world, and who we were and are….
For example, 50 years ago, back in the early 1970s, even though our denomination was in the midst of all sorts of dire crises, we had the prophetic opportunity to publish the Pentagon Papers. As you may recall, the Pentagon Papers–all 7,000 pages of them!–proved, among other things, that the Johnson administration had systematically lied to the American people and Congress about what was happening in the Vietnam War. In June of 1971, The New York Times leaked a tiny portion of this huge story but was immediately muzzled by a Nixon Administration court injunction. The U.S. Supreme Court would soon rule that this story could be told to the world, but no publisher, major or minor, would touch it, for they knew that it would draw FBI harassment and expensive lawsuits. This is when we stepped in and stepped up. Beacon Press–the publishing arm of our Unitarian Universalist Association–said yes. It would publish the Pentagon Papers and did so in October of 1971. As feared, FBI harassment and expensive litigation came our way, but we faced it. We endured. We survived.
We were faithful to our religious mission of doing what we could, given the times we lived in, and the opportunities that came our way.
We did our job.
It was like a star burning through sheets of clouds, the star of our true self.
And the stars kept on burning through, one by one. In 1974, way ahead of other denominations, the UUA established an official office dedicated to support ministries to gays, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. In 1977, there was a formal denomination-wide pledge to challenge sexist language, assumptions, and practices. In 1992, the UUA committed to becoming racially and culturally diverse. In 1999, we saw the production of the comprehensive sexuality curriculum, “Our Whole Lives.” In the mid-2000s, we championed same-sex marriage across the land, and in 2015, when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, Unitarian Universalist ministers like me streamed downtown to city hall, to officiate (with tears streaming down our eyes!) at the wedding services of people whose love had always been real but had not been duly recognized as such.
2015 was also the years when the UUA created the Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry to support congregations in becoming more inclusive for people who are differently-abled. So important!
In these ways, and so many others, right up to the present day, we have been using our freedom to demonstrate how we believe that all people are children of a great love, all of us, and absolutely nothing can separate us from that, nothing ought to keep us away from that great love—not sexual orientation, or gender identity, or race, or class, or ability, or ANYTHING.
Including what you believe. Whether you believe in God, or in ten gods, or in none at all.
One by one, stars of our true self burning through.
In the 1980s, congregations began adopting the ritual of lighting the chalice as a way of starting worship, and they also adopted such annual rituals as the Water Communion and the Flower Celebration. 1985 saw the formal adoption of our Seven Principles and our Six Sources which, ever since, have been sources of common language and common vision. 1993 saw the publication of our current hymnal, “Singing the Living Tradition,” and in 2005, we saw an addition to what we’ve come to call our “grey hymnal” with “Singing the Journey,” our “teal hymnal,” highlighting the spirituality of the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender community, earth-centered and non-Western theologies, both male and female spirituality, and the music of cultures traditionally under-represented in our communities. It’s given us such beloved hymns as “Blue Boat Home” and “Breaths.”
All of this, and more, expressing the efforts of the baby religious tradition that we are, to create language and rituals that will help the baby grow into its destiny of being a religion of One World Transformed. To give it strength and resilience to withstand adversity that comes from without and from within.
It’s in this particular light that I would have us see a grassroots movement current among us, which means to add to our Seven Principles an Eighth. The Eighth is as follows: to affirm and promote “journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.” The movement to add this principle, again, is grassroots and originally came from a collaboration between UU leaders Paula Cole-Jones and Bruce Pollack-Johnson, grounded in their observation that you can follow the 7 Principles faithfully without really thinking about or dealing with racism and other oppressions at the systemic level. The 7 Principles can be written upon your heart but you can still be oblivious to entrenched social arrangements around education, law enforcement, employment, housing, health care, and so on, that benefit whites but punish people of color. This is so because so many UUs are white, and this means they are really never personally exposed to these problems–such problems aren’t really on the radar. Our Principles matter to us exactly because they remind us again and again about values we don’t dare forget. The proposed Eighth Principle is, in essence, an antidote to forgetting.
My question to you, West Shore, is shall we take on a denominational leadership role by exploring this proposed 8th Principle among ourselves, asking all the questions, raising all the considerations, and, ultimately, voting as a congregation to adopt this Principle for ourselves? Shall we elevate this grassroots movement which has been endorsed by Black LIves Matter, join the congregations who have already gone through the adoption process, and become a part of a building critical mass that will ultimately lead the denomination as a whole to consider adopting the Eight Principle?
Shall we do this?
I hope we will! Let’s do this important thing! Let’s be leaders in our movement! Let’s let our little light shine!
Right now, our Coordinating Team (comprised of Ministry Associates and Staff) is finalizing a Policy on Congregational Statements that is democratic in spirit, sensitive towards different points of view, minimizes hurt feelings and misunderstandings, and guides us from beginning to end in doing such work as adopting the Eighth Principle. We didn’t have this process in place when we hung our Black Lives Matter banner on our building, several years ago. But we have it now.
It’s about making history in the moment. History in the making. Not just what is past and done, but what we can make and do right now!
We are building the foundations of who we are as a religious people–born in 1961, just 60 years old this year, and in process, on a powerful and transformative spiritual journey.
Mary Oliver’s poem has described it so well. But it’s also been well captured by the song entitled “Spirit of Life,” whom some say has become nothing less than our Unitarian Universalist version of “Amazing Grace:”
Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.
After finally realizing what we had to do, we did it, we began our collective journey in 1961. And despite the ways in which this decision set the house to trembling, and fears tugging at our ankles—despite adversarial winds with their stiff fingers prying at our very foundations, and the wildness of the night—despite all this, we kept on going, and we’re coming into our own.
Stars burning through clouds. And a new voice which we are slowly recognizing as our own, a voice that is not solely Unitarian, and neither solely Universalist, but Unitarian Universalist, original, compelling, a voice saying,
Spirit of Life, come to us, sing in our hearts,
help us to hold on to the big vision of One World Transformed
even as we hold on to a capacity to be tolerant as we grow and try and fail and try again.
Give us dogged determination to build the foundations and keep building.
May we put ourselves into the brave challenging spaces that transformation demands,
and may the love that we meet there inspire us to want to be more.
Spirit of Life, Spirit that Queen Isabella and King John felt 450 years ago,
now you are here among us, moving within us.
Strengthen us to be bringers of hope and renewal,
bringers of love and justice,
bringers of beauty and healing.
Give us wisdom to use our freedom well.
For you have called us to this Journey, and we will go.
We go, deeper and deeper into a world that is both achingly beautiful and tragically broken. So much to savor, and so much to save.
Deeper and deeper, we go, and though it is the human condition that there will always be adversity without and adversity within, let us say and never stop saying, “Spirit of Life, come unto me.” It is our Amazing Grace voice, our heartbeat and our heartsong and our destiny and it will keep us company, it will fill us and strengthen us, and the only thing that is ours to do—the ONLY THING—is to magnify this voice in our very living, amplify it, multiply it, spread it through our actions, share it through our songs and stories and words, so that more and more people are feeling the Spirit of Life move in their hearts, more and more people are saying with us,
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in our hands, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold us close; wings set us free.
Spirit of Life, come to us, come to us….