I’m talking to a young man at the Southbank – he’s sitting on the ground and is at least slightly intoxicated from the bottle of cheap wine that he and his friends are passing back and forth. On realizing that I’m a minister, he offers his opinion about religion. Everyone has an opinion about religion!
Let’s backtrack for a moment. Despite what you might be thinking, I promise that I did not set up a stand on the Southbank and preach to the crowds. Really. Even I’m not that enthusiastic. And I didn’t even bring up the topic of religion.
My conversation with this particular group of young people began when their dog took a romantic interest in my leg, if you know what I mean. They apologized and our conversation began. We talked about where we live… I mentioned I live above a church… and suddenly we’re onto religion.
His opinion: there ought to be a religion where everyone can have the freedom of their own beliefs! Amen! Great idea! Done!
It’s very satisfying to find that when someone imagines their ideal religion, they end up reinventing Unitarianism!
But you will probably not be surprised to hear me say that our very inclusive way of being religious also has its own challenges. Part of what makes traditional religion work – what has made it a consistent and often central part of human society for thousands of years – is a shared set of beliefs. In almost every other religion, there is a story, a book, a creed, a teaching to which all members subscribe. The word subscribe is important; they may not all believe in this central core of their religion, but they commit to it nonetheless. It is there for them as an answer and a guide.
If you are despairing, those core beliefs can provide comfort. If you are in conflict, the core beliefs can offer a resolution. If you seek meaning, the core beliefs tell you what your purpose should be. When you seek spiritual growth, the core beliefs describe the path must follow and the destination you are to seek.
Without a proscribed set of beliefs, a central story, a unique goal that each of us should seek, religion becomes a different matter altogether.
When one of us despairs, we don’t feel we can turn to easy answers: “God moves in mysterious ways” or “it is your accumulated Karma – hope for a better rebirth next time.”
The answer to “why am I here” is not as simple as “read chapter 9, verses 32 to 36”!
Religion offers meaning, purpose, guidance, and it offers salvation.
The word salvation might be the one word in that list that some of us find problematic. Salvation can be much broader than simply the Christian meaning with which we may be most familiar. Life involves struggle and suffering. We ask why we have had to confront such pain and such loss. We ask why we are here and struggle to find meaning behind the trials we face. Religion offers the salvation of an answer to these existential challenges.
What kind of salvation can our radically inclusive faith offer?
How can it offer guidance and meaning without a list of answers and set beliefs. How can it give us a sense of the nature of the sacred when we don’t profess to a single shared understanding?
In this afternoon’s Bright Lights gathering, we will tell the story “Swimmy”, by Leo Leonni. It will be a lot more fun and a lot louder this afternoon than in this telling! Swimmy is a little black fish who lives with a large happy community of orange fish. When his entire community is devoured by a fierce tuna, he is left alone to find his way. After a long journey and many adventures, he comes upon another large group of orange fish.
But this community of orange fish all hide in the shadows for fear of being eaten. Swimmy organizes them to swim together in the shape of one great huge orange fish with himself as its eye – as black as a muscle shell. The plan works – the big fierce tunas are scared away – and the whole community is saved.
It has always been one of my favourite stories – even before I was a Unitarian! And what a Unitarian story it is.
There are no easy answers, but together, with creativity, with cooperation, having journeyed, helping each other, in community, we can find our own kind of truth and our own salvation.
Note what I just said. We can find our own kind of truth and salvation in community. If you thought that Unitarianism was a low obligation, easy faith, you might be getting a bit uneasy as I am suggesting that each of us can, and indeed must bring a bit of truth and salvation to this community – we must each be saviours for the other.
This is the work of our religious community. It is the work that, step by step, leads us toward the goal of a community where each of us feels safe enough to be fully ourselves – safe enough to take the chances that we must take in order to grow – safe enough to risk appearing foolish or ignorant – safe enough to cry together in despair and safe enough to shout for joy when the blessings of happiness come our way.
How can we be people who can create such a community? How can we offer this quality of safety to each other?
A person seeking this quality tells a bit of his story in “How can I help?” a book written by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman:
I've been chronically ill for twelve years. Stroke. Paralysis. That's what I'm dealing with now. I've gone to rehab program after rehab program. I may be one of the most rehabilitated people on the face of the earth... I've worked with a lot of people, and I've seen many types and attitudes. People try very hard to help me do my best on my own. They understand the importance of that self-sufficiency, and so do I. They're positive and optimistic. I admire them for their perseverance.
My body is broken, but they still work very hard with it. They're very dedicated. I have nothing but respect for them.
But I must say this: I have never, ever, met someone who sees me as a whole... Can you understand this? Can you? No one sees me and helps me see myself as being complete, as is. No one really sees how that's true, at the deepest level. Everything else is Band-Aids, you know.
What we want – what we each need – is to be seen as whole. We need to be recognized and accepted as we are – to know that we are enough as we are. Most of us, thankfully, are not horribly broken physically or mentally, and yet most of us carry the gnawing pain and worry of our flaws, our errors, the deeds and thoughts of which we are ashamed. Each of us feels to some extent that we must pretend to be something we are not in order to be acceptable – to be loveable.
A saving community is a place where we are safe enough to drop our armour and put aside our perfect masks. Paradoxically, to be accepted as we are is the first step toward becoming who we can be.
It both heals us and enables us to enter into our journey of growth. These two things, healing and growth are inextricably linked. Like a broken bone, we can not grow strong and true if we are broken.
When the dog who took such a liking to my leg made my introduction to a new group of friends, I was not entirely comfortable at first. They were drinking cheap wine in the middle of the day at The Southbank, after all. They were cooking and selling dubious sausages off of a charcoal fire in a foil pan on the pavement. They were trying, with little success, to sell some junky postcards.
How will you approach the next stranger you meet?
When you go into social hour, what message will your presence convey to the people with whom you talk?
We each have it in our power to offer to one another the saving power of acceptance. By recognizing the wholeness and sacredness in each other, we begin the work of creating the world we seek.
Each time we meet, we have the chance to help and heal. We need only open our hearts.
May it be so.