Meet together, speak together,
let your minds be of one accord,
as the Gods of old, being of one mind,
accepted their share of the sacrifice.
May your counsel be common, your assembly common,
common the mind, and the thoughts of these united.
A common purpose do I lay before you,
and worship with your common oblation.
Let your aims be common,
and your hearts of one accord,
and all of you be of one mind,
so you may live well together.
11. Hinduism. Rig Veda 10.191.2-4
“The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice. It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.”
- Rev. Mark Morrison Reed,
When I had been in this country only a short while and was just learning about some of the many differences between the UK and the US, someone helpfully explained to me one day that over here, most people just figure that ‘church is naff.’
I already knew that only 5% of the population here attend church regularly, so this naff business might help to explain it – if, that is, I had any idea what ‘naff’ meant!
So I looked it up. ‘Unstylish, clichéd, or outmoded.’ Right. Got it.
You know what? It’s absolutely true.
In some ways, being part of a church community is participating in an archaic and anachronistic institution.
Take our Sunday services, for example. The form of our service comes from the Protestant Christian tradition. Even among majority of people in this country who say that they consider themselves Christians, this is not a popular activity, as the national statistics make quite clear. For us, most of whom are not theologically Christian, going to a place called ‘church’ on Sunday mornings seems more than a bit odd.
Oh sure, we’ve changed the content around so that our readings come from a wide variety of religious and secular sources. The words of many of our hymns are from earlier Christian sources, but they have been altered – updated to be broader and more embracing of diverse views. In our second hymn today, ‘How Can I Keep From Singing!’ we sang ‘Since love prevails in heaven and Earth.’ That’s a far cry from the original ‘Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth’, which is not something you’re likely to hear a bunch of Unitarians singing anytime soon…
Some of our hymns are from non-Christian traditions. We often sing songs inspired by Jewish, Muslim and other traditions. And some hymns are our own; ‘Our Kindred Fellowships,’ the hymn we sang a few minutes ago, was written specifically for our religious movement in the 20th century.
So, we’ve updated… We’ve changed the content of our services over the years to reflect the diversity of beliefs and the openness of a Unitarian congregation, many of us now avoid the word church itself, carrying as it does the implication that we are Christian, but still, the reality is that we are participating in this naff ritual and this naff institution.
So, what are we doing here, why do we do this? Why do we come to church, become members, take the time to discuss issues, have votes, volunteer, help to clean our building, make coffee, bake cakes, do the washing up, bring food to pot-luck luncheons, go to meetings and all of that?
Since I come from the US, you might imagine that I grew up in a church-going culture and that I consider it the most normal thing in the world to go to church on Sunday mornings. On the contrary, I grew up in a Jewish family – and not a particularly religious one. Judaism was and is certainly my cultural heritage and it strongly influences my religious outlook today.
For most of my life, though, I had no use for religion at all. I went to a Unitarian church for the first time in my thirties because – like some of you perhaps were today – I got dragged there! My son, now sixteen, was about three years old and my wife and I decided that this wonderful, adorable, little learning machine who was starting to mimic everything in his environment was going to absorb his values and principles – his way of seeing the world – from somewhere and that we’d be wise to try to put some good influences in front of him. So, one fine morning, we went to a nice, anachronistic, archaic institution: our local Unitarian church.
If I had known the word ‘naff’, I certainly would have used it at the time. This was not my kind of music by any stretch of the imagination. And sitting still for an hour is not what I like to do either – although many ministers would say that inability to sit still is what forces us to get up here and be a bit more active!
But church – naff as it is – grew on me. Or maybe I grew on or in it. Church became a place I wanted to be and an institution I wanted to participate in.
There are many different reasons why someone might go to church. Maybe it’s useful to say what did not motivate me to keep going to church after that initial experience… Here is my own personal top ten list of non-reasons for going to church
- I did not go to church for organ music or for hymn singing. With apologies to our organist, it’s not an never has been my taste.
- I did not go to church to meet influential people to help me in my career
- I did not go to church to ask God for help for myself or for anyone else – I don’t believe in that kind of God.
- I did not go to church to confess my sins or to be forgiven by God
- I did not go to church to make friends – although I made many wonderful friends there
- I did not go to church to find a mate – I already had one
- I did not go to church because I thought I was supposed to – I knew that I wasn’t supposed to!
- I did not go to church out of habit as a comfortable return to the traditions of my childhood
- I did not go to church to be told what to believe or for ‘the answers’
- And - I did not go to church to make my friends think more of me – In fact, I knew for certain that it would have the opposite effect!
I kept going to church because of what it did to me.
In her book ‘Traveling Mercies,’ Anne Lamotte explains why she forces her son Sam to go to church.
The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want – which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy – are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith; they are Buddhists, Jews, Christians–people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. I saw something once from the Jewish Theological Seminary that said, “A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be a part of great meaning.” P.100.
This is not why I first went to church, but it is why I stayed. It is also why I am here now. I want to live a life with “purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, [and] joy.” I’ve learned – and it took me an awfully long time – that this kind of living does not come from the things that the advertisements or television or the free newspapers I read loyally or the rest of popular culture raises up before us. These material things do call to me – oh yes they do – glittering, singing, siren-like, but they are not the way to the life I want.
The way to that life is something not nearly so glamorous and fast-paced – something, yes, something even a bit naff.
It is about people “banding together to work on themselves” and to work to make a better world.
It happens when we sing together and someone comes up with an unexpected bit of harmony that makes the words come alive and we think that maybe, just maybe, love really can prevail on earth.
It happens when we share the sorrows and joys of our lives and others respond with warmth and support or with joy on our behalf. We know that we have been heard and we know that there is a community that cares. It’s then that we get a glimpse of the unity that holds us all – that we are indeed part of something beautiful.
It happens in evening and weekend programmes, when something that someone shares or even how they listen sparks a little something in us that that has been cold for a long time and leads us toward wholeness.
It happens when we focus together on injustice in the world and – despite knowing that we are few and that our words and deeds alone will be only a drop in the ocean – we find the boldness and the faith to do what we can.
It happens in so many odd little moments when we’re not looking or even trying – when we’re not the least bit stylish or trendy… when something very real happens between real human beings and the sacredness that lies within them becomes visible – even just for an instant.
Ann Lamotte tells the story of a young girl – about seven years old who got lost one day:
“The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally, a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, ‘You could leave me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.’”
This is why we are here. Church – as anachronistic and archaic as it may be – is a place where we are able to find our way back to our best, truest, selves. As Lamotte says,
“…no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their voices, I can always find my way home.” (p. 55).
So may it be with you.