Holly Anne Lux-Sullivan
In a Barnes & Noble just before Easter, I watched a woman
glance at a table of books and make a face like she'd just tasted something
awful. Then she hurried on by as if
she were afraid the books would bite. Curious, I looked to see what she had
grimaced at: All the books on the table were about religion, primarily
Christianity. They had titles like "Misquoting Jesus" and "What Jesus Really
All I could think was, "Is this what we've done to God? Is that we've done to religion? Is American religion today in such a sad
state that when someone sees a table full of religion books in a bookstore, she
scurries away and looks like she's going to be sick?"
The answer is yes: This is what we've done to
At that same bookstore, about a year ago now, I stood in line
with friends waiting to buy the latest "Harry Potter" book at 1 a.m. I was telling my friend that I'd be
preaching in a few weeks; she asked me about church and seminary, and I
enthusiastically answered. The
person behind us said, "Excuse me, I don't mean to eavesdrop, but did you say
you're studying to be a minister?"
He had heard my friends and I talking for awhile - we were in
line about half an hour - so I imagine he was surprised to hear one of us
talking about going into ministry, considering our other, more colorful
I said that I was beginning study to become a Unitarian
Univeralist minister, and he said he'd heard good things about the church and
had considered going.
Despite an unfortunate experience with homophobia in a
mainstream Christian church, he was still open to the idea of church. He was still seeking, and he'd heard
enough about Unitarian Universalism to think maybe it could be a denomination
where he'd be welcome, regardless of sexual orientation or gender.
So this, too, is what we've done to God and to religion.
America all it
can and should be.
* Why Bring That Up?
It heartens me immensely to know that our faith is known as
welcoming and inviting, open to all without discrimination or fear of rejection.
It delights me that the guy at the
bookstore had heard we'd welcome him. But I see non-Christian Unitarian
Universalists acting like we are superior to Christians, as though we're more
mature because we don't believe in Jesus or the Christian God.
Unintentionally, I've found myself becoming a champion of
Christianity. There is a discomfort
with who we are that leads many of us to wholly discount its value. In many cases, our personal and
collective religious histories inspire this discomfort - it has to do with many
of us coming out of Christian backgrounds after having had actively unpleasant
experiences. Many of us have our
own demons to fight, our own brokenness to heal, before we can accept our
personal histories with Christianity or Unitarian Universalism's roots in it.
Individually, we have to step into the darkness of our
religious experiences and dwell there. See what's uncomfortable there, what
hurts, what needs healing, and what needs to be let go of. Work on it. By doing so, we're opening ourselves to
old and possibly new pains. But
we're also healing Unitarian Universalism, one UU, and one congregation, at a
Making peace with our religious history is what we can do
for religion today.
* For Instance!
And then there's that pesky part of our Principles and
Purposes that says our tradition draws from many sources, including "Jewish and
Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our
neighbors as ourselves." We draw
from Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to love.
Until and unless we change that
statement of Principles and Purposes, our religious heritage is intact and is
explicitly something we look to for guidance and wisdom.
What's difficult, of course, is that loving our neighbors
means we have to try to love everyone, not just the neighbors who agree with us.
The Dalai Lama suggests how to get
past anger after a disagreement: He says to remember that the person you're
angry with is human, like yourself, and has similar fears and hopes. By trying to connect to a common
humanity, you might be able to let go of some of the anger.
I was excited when I read this: It's such a simple - yet
revolutionary - way of thinking. I told my husband I was going to try it with
one of my coworkers, a woman whose very presence in the office frequently makes
me want to scream, a woman my husband has heard me rant about on far too many
occasions. I thought I'd be able to connect with her - or at least not feel
raging hostility toward her - if I could find some nugget of shared emotion
between us. My husband gently
suggested I look for shared humanity in someone I feel less strongly about and
work my way up!
Being hopefully realistic in the face of adversity is also
what we can do for religion today.
An acquaintance of mine - who is also a UU - said once that a
relative of hers who works for the Secret Service is the only person she knows
who thinks Dick Cheney is a nice guy. She laughed at how ludicrous the idea
was, but hearing how smug she sounded, I had to ask, "Is that Secret Service
agent also the only person you know who has actually met Dick
This, too, is what my faith does for me and through me: It
forces me to point out hypocrisy and to humbly accept when my own is pointed
out. I didn't like sticking up for Dick Cheney. But I have difficulty swallowing that
it's okay to be prejudiced as long as your prejudice agrees with my own.
Recognizing hypocrisy and working to eliminate it from our
own lives and interactions is what we can do for religion
In January 2006, I participated in a two-day seminar about
nonviolent communication. To
illustrate the differences between those who practice nonviolent communication
and those who don't, the workshop leader talked about the natures of jackals and
giraffes - complete with hand puppets to keep us entertained.
Jackals are aggressors, always suspicious, on the hunt and
looking for their next kill. Their view of the world is through slitted red
eyes. So jackal communicators are out to hear themselves talk and get their
points made; they react first with anger, then - maybe - with thought. More likely, jackal communicators will
argue, argue, argue until their opponent gives up, and most anyone they interact
with is considered an opponent.
Giraffes, on the other hand, are gentle herbivores. Their long necks allow them to peer at
things up close and to pull back for a wider view. So giraffe communicators listen, they
think quietly about what they're hearing, and they try to see what need of the
person they're talking to isn't being met. Giraffes put the other ahead of
themselves. They take a few
breaths, consider the other and work to be gentle and thoughtful. Even when facing a jackal communicator,
giraffes respond with compassion.
Though it may be difficult to get someone who disagrees with
my political or religious beliefs in a room with me, when I do, I can work to be
a giraffe communicator rather than a jackal - even when I come up against a
jackal instead of the gentle giraffe I'm hoping for.
Reaching across the political and philosophical gulf in
religious and public discourse is what we can do for religion today. It is what
religion needs us to do.
To be able to live our faith, we have to know and understand
our faith. Seems pretty basic, but
we're a denomination whose members are diverse in culture, belief, and passion,
and lots of us have come to Unitarian Universalism because it feels right
to us. I know I signed my first
church's membership book before I'd really mulled over the principles and
purposes. I imagine that's true for
others, too. So I encourage each of
us to take a Building Your Own Theology or Articulating Your Unitarian
Universalist Faith adult RE course.
I encourage each of us to sit down with the principles and
purposes and see what we think about them. Do I agree with them? Which do I take to heart more than
others? Let's figure out what we
believe so that when we are actively shaping our liberal faith in the world, we
know what it is we're shaping.
And while we're figuring out what we believe, consider this:
We pride ourselves on being a faith that is welcoming to many beliefs and
theologies, as we should. But in doing so, we also often emphasize what makes us
different from those in the pews beside us, instead of emphasizing what brings
us together. As we examine our personal faiths and learn to better articulate
them, we can look for commonalities in them - those elements of our individual
beliefs that weave us together in the fabric of Unitarian Universalism.
Recognizing and celebrating our common values is what we
can do for religion today.
Long before I became a seminarian, I had become the crazy
church lady in my circle of friends. I'm the one always talking about some
church activity or a sermon my minister gave and the truth I took away from it.
It was with great chagrin that my
husband, who grew up very purposely unchurched by his ex-Catholic parents, told
me he'd become the guy in his circle of coworkers who's always talking
about church. I say embrace it!
Become your group's crazy church
lady! Make it well known that the way you live your life is based on Unitarian
We're already in our communities, ministering in dozens of
ways - volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, working at rape crisis centers,
writing letters to the editor. We
can say, "I do this because I'm a Unitarian Universalist and I believe that we
are all interconnected and that every life has value." Whatever is true for you,
however your Unitarian Universalism affects your daily activities and
interactions, tell people!
We aren't going to be perfect Unitarian Universalist
representatives all the time. Neither are public Christians of any political
stripe perfect representatives of Christianity; nor are Muslims, Buddhists, or
Jews perfect representatives of their faiths all the time. So let's just rid ourselves of that
pressure from the get-go. Live your life tomorrow as you are today, but
tomorrow, if you aren't already, make sure you tell others how your faith shapes
Part of the beauty of Unitarian Universalism is that we have
so little agenda. We don't have to
worship a particular being or even believe such a being exists. We aren't trying to convince others of
the validity of our beliefs - but we should be.
Evangelizing about the good news - lowercase - of
Unitarian Universalism is what we can do for religion today.
We must declare our liberal religious beliefs as we take
political action instead of simply cringing when we hear those on the religious
right make sweeping statements about religion in America that don't apply to us.
We have to stop being afraid to
talk about going to church because of what our non-churchgoing friends and
acquaintances might think. I've
read in many places the idea that the religious right has hijacked the language
of faith in the U.S., and it's long past time that we
take it back. Be proud to be a
voice of liberal religion; don't let notions about what a religious person in
States sounds like stop you from putting your
voice out there. The voice of the
faithful in America sounds like us, too.
Adding our voices to the collective voice of
America's faithful is what we can do
for religion today.
* So What?
A friend and fellow seminarian is the director of a large
Boys & Girls Club in Wisconsin. She got invited to visit the White
House with a Republican member of the club's board. They would discuss with President Bush
his faith-based initiative, a program my friend has problems with on one level -
that of separation of church and state - and is in favor of on another - as the
director of an organization that needs funding to continue helping the kids she
loves so much.
More than a little nervous about it, she accepted the
invitation and went to the White House. She met President Bush and discussed her
work and how the faith-based initiative funding affects it. But more importantly
in my book, she sat with the conservative Christian leader of this
country and showed him that his is not the only face of religion in the
States. She is a lesbian, a child advocate, a
survivor of abuse, a dog lover, a Unitarian Universalist. Her face is also the face of
religion in this country. Her voice
is also the voice of religion in our country, and I can't help but smile at the
mental picture I have of her meeting the president: There sat, with George W.
Bush, this outspoken, passionate, hysterically funny, lesbian, liberal
This is what we are doing for religion today.
Doing some reading to prepare this sermon, I found a Web site
for Southern Baptists about how to evangelize to the unchurched and to members
of other denominations. I'm pleased
to say, we rank! The article was an
old one, from 2000, but at least at that point, we were among those the Southern
Baptists hoped to bring into their religious fold.
This says to me that we are a threat, that UUs are such a
forceful part of the voice of religion that we are starting to be heard.
It was a surprisingly balanced piece. Yes, it says that the only way to
salvation is through Jesus Christ and that living our godless lives means we are
living in Satan's shadow. But the article also acknowledges
our dedication to religious diversity and reason, to racial and gender equality,
and to stewardship of the Earth.
My favorite part, I think, is when the article says we "are
an extremely liberal religion that champions the cause of extreme religious
tolerance." Yes! Yes, we are
extremely liberal, and we do champion extreme religious tolerance! Thank you for seeing that in us. We are doing something right!
In truth, we do lots of things right. And we can challenge
ourselves and each other to do more. Learn about - and then make peace with -
our denominational religious history and with our personal religious histories.
Be realistic but hopeful in the
face of adversity. Recognize
hypocrisy and work to eliminate it from your lives and interactions. When possible, reach across the political
and philosophical gulf in religious and public discourse. Recognize and celebrate what you have in
common with the people beside you in the pew. Evangelize about Unitarian Universalism's
good news. Add your voice to the
collective voice of America's faithful.
Doing all these things for religion on a daily basis isn't
humanly possible. But we can
recognize the ways our Unitarian Universalism shapes our lives and then make
sure others see that, too.
Speaking out, proudly and strongly, for Unitarian
Universalism may be the most important thing we can do for religion
May it be so.
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association
member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship.
Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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