A New Unity Sunday Gathering
Written by Fulgence Ndagijimana
Fulgence Ndagijimana, minister of the Unitarian Church in Bujumbura, Burundi, is currently being held by Burundi police in that strife-ridden nation. The church building had previously been attacked under unexplained circumstances.
When strangers meet, endless possibilities emerge:
New experiences, new ways of understanding, and new ways of taking action.
When strangers meet, each pays special attention to the other.
Each is called to serve something larger than the self.
Today, this morning, let’s light the chalice:
For openness, for willingness to grow,
For rich curiosity, and for common purpose.
All will come again into its strength by Rainer Maria Rilke
All will come again into its strength:
the fields undivided, the waters undammed,
the trees towering and the walls built low.
And in the valleys, people as strong and varied as the land.
And no churches where God
is imprisoned and lamented
like a trapped and wounded animal.
The houses welcoming all who knock
and a sense of boundless offering
in all relations, and in you and me.
No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.
Becoming Human, by Hafiz
Once a man came to me and spoke for hours about
'His great visions of God' he felt he was having.
He asked me for confirmation, saying, are these wondrous dreams true?'
I replied, 'How many goats do you have?'
He looked surprised and said,
'I am speaking of sublime visions and you ask about goats!'
And I spoke again saying,
'Yes, brother - how many do you have?'
'Well, Hafiz, I have sixty-two'
'And how many wives?'
Again he looked surprised, then said, 'Four'
'How many rose bushes in your garden,
How many children,
Are your parents still alive,
Do you feed the birds in winter?'
And to all he answered.
Then I said, 'You asked me if I thought your visions were true,
I would say that they were if they make you become more human,
More kind to every creature and plant
That you know."
Message, by Andy Pakula
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about religion.
In most places, having a minister say that would be a very odd thing indeed. Something like having an airplane pilot announce “ladies and gentlemen - I’d just like to let you know that lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about flying. And by the way, there’s a nice view of mountains to your right.” Doesn’t a minister think of religion all the time?
But here, it’s a bit different. Are we a religion? I get asked that question a fair amount. It’s completely understandable. What does religion mean? Most of it would say that a religion has a set, required belief - preferably supernatural. A religion has a defined way of acting too - not leaving much up to the participants. And a religion should have defined this long ago - at least a thousand years in the past - and written it all in a form now called scripture.
These understandings don’t describe New Unity particularly well.
We don’t find that we need to bow to the weight of tradition or to follow blindly what has come before. We recognise that we are in a very different time, a very unique context, and we experiment and search to find what works best for this time and place.
That’s not to say we are set adrift from tradition, because we have been able to draw upon what is best in the tradition of this place and other traditions as we shape our way of being and doing. We need not reinvent the wheel, although we may need to do a very radical upgrade of earlier designs.
So, I don’t think all that much about religion as it is commonly understood. Recently, though, I have been in contact with more traditionally religious people and experiences and it has made me think. It makes me ask again what religion is for, what New Unity is for, and what has worked in other times and places.
Today, I’ll share where my thinking is on this deconstruction and construction of religion. Perhaps not surprisingly, it will take us very much in the direction of our current theme: interdependence.
The first question really has to be “why are you here?”
There was a time when, in many places, there simply wasn’t much to do. Religion provided an opportunity to hear music and think more deeply. You live in one of the most amazing and busiest cities in the world and you also have the World Wide Web at your fingertips, so you don’t come here because there’s nothing else to do.
There are religions that convince their adherents that something terrible will happen to them if they don’t participate in the religious community. Displeasing God is a big threat. Hell is a realistically and terrifying possibility. But I doubt that fear of God is what brings you here.
So, why are you here? What brings others here when they could be sleeping, brunching someplace lovely, or doing one of the many many things that keeps Londoners busy all weekend?
Why are you really here?
If someone had asked me that question when I was first part of a Unitarian congregation, I would not have been able to put my finger on it. I might have said something about friendship, about ethics, about connection, and about a place where Miriam and I could bring our young son.
And all of those answers would be true, but they would all be incomplete. What I think had really drawn me in was finding a different way to understand the world and how to live in it.
That’s quite a thing to say, especially when one already thinks they do have a fully adequate way of relating to the world and life. Although I would have been very hesitant to say it even if I had thought it, what I was seeking was a way to find joy in life, to love others, to accept love, to be peaceful in my heart, and to have a sense of meaning and purpose.
I’m going to call this desired outcome “wholeness.” There are many other terms from many other traditions, including spiritual maturity, enlightenment, awakening, and salvation. To me - the word wholeness does a good job of representing what I mean - which is an end to feeling broken, feeling frantically aimless, feeling alone, and feeling either too small or too big.
The history and variety of religion is almost impossibly complicated. Religions developed with many different causes and purposes and added many more as they grew.
If you said that religion exists to offer comfort in a frightening world, you would be right. But you would also be right if you said religion exists to offer inspiration to live more justly - or to teach ways of finding inner peace - for the accumulation of wealth among a powerful few - or as a means of controlling others… Just about anything you look for - good and bad - you can find in the history of religious traditions.
But within that mix for every religion is the promise of transformation of the sort that I was seeking.
The paths to that promised state are many and diverse. If you are a Christian, you need to pray, go to church, and believe in Jesus and the trinity. Not to oversimplify, there have also been other paths within Christianity, including asceticism and service.
If you follow Islam, your path involves prayer five times a day, fasting at Ramadan, charity, belief in Allah, and at least once in your life making the Haj - the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Each faith has its path or maybe several.
Across faiths - big and small and old and new - there are probably hundreds of different paths and practices one could follow. They may describe what rules you follow, prayer, meditation, how you think or believe, your relationship to nature, submission to and praising of a deity, serving others, asceticism, annihilation of ego, the clothes you wear, the rituals you perform, and the gatherings you attend.
These paths or ways of being usually make claims about the nature of reality. They have stories and writings about this reality which support the ways of life they propound.
Jesus or God or Allah or Brahman are real and infallible and said to do this, so do it. The Buddha became enlightened and the whole earth shook when it happened, so do as he says.
Once we follow this path, the religions tell us, a better state of being will be ours. It may happen in this life and it may happen in a future life, but the promise is there.
This brings us around to the question of New Unity and of each of us. Do you have a path or a tradition to follow? Do I? Do we need one? Must it be just one?
The fact that we are here rather than in a traditional religious community with a single set of stories, beliefs, practices, and rules suggests that we are at least comfortable being in a place that doesn’t offer a single path. It suggests perhaps that we are the kind of people who don’t like being told what to believe or what rules to follow - and this - perhaps more than anything has always been true of the Unitarian tradition.
Do we need a single path? That is a very different kind of question. Can we approach wholeness without a single path?
Many wise people have endorsed following a single path and a single tradition. When the Dalai Lama visited the UK some years ago, he addressed the increasing conversion of Britons to Buddhism by urging people to stay with the religion in which they were raised. His view is that all religions are valid paths to the same point.
There are many who would say that in order to really make progress in personal or spiritual growth or wholeness, you must dig deep into your practice and your belief. Many would say that to do otherwise is merely to skim the surface - to be religious dilettantes - trying everything and doing nothing.
Have we then, by embracing many ways of thinking and doing, robbed ourselves of the potential wholeness that a deep path can provide?
I think I may have finally got to a resolution to this question but I hope you will allow me to keep it somewhat tentative for now. I’d also be very keen to talk about and explore these ideas further.
My answer is that the question about the danger of many paths includes a very wrong assumption. We do, in fact, have a single path at New Unity. We do have a single practice. We have a single code for living.
That path and practice is relationship. That code is love and compassion.
Here is a story of what some would call an epiphany - a transformative, life changing religious experience. It comes from Rachel Naomi Remen’s book “Kitchen Table Wisdom” where she recounts her experience as a young physician attending a workshop led by Carl Rogers. Rogers pioneering approach to psychotherapy drew on the power of unconditional positive regard - we might call it a form of being radically inclusive in a very real and relational way. To begin the session, Carl Rogers asked for a volunteer and one came forward to sit with him in front of the group.
Remen describes what happened next:
"In the safe climate of Rogers' total acceptance, [the doctor] began to shed his masks, hesitantly at first and then more and more easily. As each mask fell, Rogers welcomed the one behind it unconditionally, until finally we glimpsed the beauty of the doctor‘s naked face. I doubt that even he himself had ever seen it before . . . I remember wishing that I had volunteered, envying this doctor the opportunity to be received by someone in such a total way. Except for [a very special] few moments with my grandfather, I had never experienced that kind of welcome."
The story tells of the power of human relationship. Relationship can shape and change our lives. The experience that Rachel Naomi Remen recounted would, in almost any traditional religious tradition, would be seen a miraculous - as the hand of God at work - as evidence for the truth and validity of a faith.
In my own life, I have been changed in amazing and dramatic ways. It has always been through connection with others - face to face, spoken, written, in cyberspace - but connection - that such transformation has come.
While some would turn to scripture or the teachings of the past for an authority on how to be in life, I suggest that we have chosen to turn mainly to our interconnection with others for this wisdom and authority.
Author Gay Hendricks said this: “I accept relationship as my primary teacher about myself, other people, and the mysteries of the universe.”
Relationship is how we discover who we are at this moment and relationship is how we see how we change and grow. Relationship provides us the examples, the challenges, and the hard work that we need for the journey.
To someone following a traditional path, relationship will seem like an easy out. After all, they are spending hours in prayer or meditation, fasting, and studying scripture and I appear to be suggesting that just spending time with people is at least as good a path.
Like other paths, though, the path of relationship provides challenge and discomfort. At every step of practice, we are forced to confront not only another person, but ourselves.
In conflict, we see our fragility revealed.
When comforting another, we learn about our compassion.
When being comforted, we see both our need to appear strong and our longing to be held.
Relationship is not easy. Meditation and prayer - by comparison - are simple and painless.
Relationship provides a constant path of practice - a practice that challenges us and builds us - a path that builds strong community at the same time as it creates individual wholeness.
It would be a mistake to conclude that relationship and traditional religious paths are entirely separate and alternative. Traditional paths almost always create communities - places for teaching and for community - for relationship. Perhaps much of their power comes from their ability to create places where relationship is fostered rather than the content of their teachings per se.
Similarly, it would be wrong to conclude that the path to wholeness is simply to be with other people. Relationship can be vacuous, it can be abusive. Relationship can take us away from wholeness just as it can bring us toward it.
The difference is in how we are together. In a community where we commit to be respectful to one another, we are free to express and test and explore our own thoughts.
In a community with acceptance close to its heart, we gain the confidence to live into our own being.
In a community of truth and honesty shared with love and care, we can see ourselves reflected clearly in other eyes.
It is in a community of commitment - where we have promised to stand together and travel together - that we can each find our way forward.
May it be so.