A Spirit of Life People

A Spirit of Life People

Rev. Anthony David

June 5, 2011

Writer John O’ Donohue tells the story about an explorer who hired some native Africans to help carry his equipment through the jungle. They traveled continuously for three days, at which point his hired hands stopped and refused to move even one more inch. Confused, the explorer asked why and one of the African natives said, “We have moved too quickly to reach here; now we need to wait to give our spirits a chance to catch up with us.”

It’s the purpose of anniversaries of all kinds. A chance to catch up. Unitarian Universalism has been traveling through the jungle of our world for fifty full continuous years now, and every year and every decade has been fast moving. So much done and so much experienced. Adversity as well as advance. The time is therefore absolutely ripe to draw on African native wisdom and wait a while. Let the spirit catch up with us, and as I see it, this is really about allowing the story in the bare facts to emerge. Hearing beyond the prose to the singing poetry. Getting to the heartbeat, the heartsong. “The destiny of the world,” says scholar Harold Goddard, “is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.” It means that Unitarian Universalism’s golden anniversary is nothing less than a time of discerning a collective story worthy of us, one that is true and will keep us true, all the way to our destiny.

So this morning I am listening for the heartsong. I’m listening for the story. And I hear it in a poem of Mary Oliver’s, entitled “The Journey”

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice

— though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

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

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and 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,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do —

determined to save

the only life you could save.

**

Fifty years ago, once the final vote had been taken, and it was clear that Unitarianism and Universalism would come together through consolidation after more than a hundred years of striving, 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, 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. 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. As an official denominational report puts it, [quote] “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! Some Unitarians feared that the momentum of growth which they had built would be slowed down as they combined with the Universalists who were in a declining phase. Some Universalists felt that their movement was in the process of redefining itself in truly universal terms. They felt that this renascence would be snuffed out by the merger process. 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” [unquote]. All these fears, and more, tugging at the ankles. Each crying out the words of the poem, “Mend my life!” Give me an upfront guarantee that the action you are about to take will solve me, 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

was terrible.

Unitarian Universalism kept on moving forward, and in the beginning, everything seemed golden—but it would not last. Adversity came all too soon. In 1960 President John Kennedy said that “the torch has been passed on to a new generation. […]  Here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” And we heard that. Our first association president, Dana Greeley, heard it and spent money without restraint, expanding programs and expanding staff so we could rise to the challenge. We rallied to the aid of the Civil Rights movement; we were there at the front of the line in Selma. It was a golden moment. But then came reversal, for us and, in truth, for lots of other liberal religious groups. The times were a’ changin’ like crazy. Polarizing us were our disagreements on how to work for peace in the face of the Vietnam conflict; polarizing us were our differences on how to work for racial justice in the face of the rise of the Black Power movement. When our second association president Robert West assumed office in 1969, the challenges he faced were overwhelming. Rampant anti-institutionalism, for one: people (ministers!) actually saying that the best thing to do would be to blow up Boston headquarters! Which only exacerbated a second problem that Robert West faced: the UUA 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. To save our bacon, Robert West’s first move was to cut the UUA budget and staff by 40% … and this does not make for popularity. In an often-repeated quote, the Rev. Mark Morrison Reed observes, “We do not stand above the social attitudes of our times, as we are prone to believe, but instead flounder about in their midst with everyone else.” It’s 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 we encountered in a fast-changing world was the wildness in our Unitarian Universalist hearts. What comes to mind here is our sky-high expectations for ourselves. At that worship service fifty years ago, right after the final vote had been taken, and we were singing over and over again “As tranquil streams that meet and merge / and flow as one to seek the sea,” and there was not a dry eye in the house, the Rev. Donald Harrington said this in the 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.”

Wildness—in our Unitarian Universalist hearts. It shakes the branches from the trees, it dislodges stones, and all of a sudden we find the pathway forward filled with debris and hard to navigate. Fourteen years after Consolidation, when it became clear that there would be no need to “brace ourselves to absorb the shock of incredible growth,” an official denominational report would ask straight out, “Are we chronically unrealistic?” It goes on to say, “[I]t is certainly true that some of the expectations with which Merger was undertaken have been affected by external circumstances over which we had little or no control. These have altered the course of other church bodies as well as our own. Yet, all too readily we look back now and say our expectations were unrealistic, but at the same time act as though we are still motivated by the same expectations.” It can cause us, as the Rev. Pickett once observed, “to be a contentious group of people … often harder on ourselves than are our fundamentalist critics … so easy to be cynical and mistrustful.”

[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

Despite all the adversity, from beyond us, as well as within us, Unitarian Universalism just kept on. We knew what we had to do. Back in the early 1970s, even though we were in the midst of all sorts of dire crises, we had the opportunity to publish the Pentagon Papers, proving that the government wasn’t telling the truth about what was happening in Vietnam. Prophetic witness. And we did it. FBI harassment and expensive litigation came our way, and we faced it. What we did 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, the establishment of a denominational office to support ministries to gays, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. In 1977, a formal denomination-wide pledge to challenge sexist language, assumptions, and practices. In 1992, commitment to becoming racially and culturally diverse. In 1999, production of the comprehensive sexuality curriculum, “Our Whole Lives.” In the mid-2000s, championing same-sex marriage across the land. Right now, working on behalf of immigration reform and immigrant rights. Each of these initiatives leading the way in our society; each of these initiatives expressing the deep theological insight that we are all children of a great love, all of us, and absolutely nothing can separate us from that, nothing ought to separate us from that—keep us away from that great love—not sexual orientation, or gender, or race, or sexuality, or nationality, or ANYTHING.

One by one, stars burning through. In the 1980s and 1990s, how lighting the chalice as a way of beginning worship started spreading in our congregations, together with observing such signature rituals as the Water Communion and the Flower Celebration. The formation of our Seven Principles and our Six Sources—sources of common language and common vision. The publication of our current hymnal, “Singing the Living Tradition.” All of these and more, indicating a deepened commitment to shaping Unitarian Universalist identity and helping people get a better feel for who we are as a people. A song like “Spirit of Life,” which some say (and I agree) 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 the clouds. And a new voice which we are slowly recognizing as our own, a voice that is pure, a voice that is true and will keep us true, a voice saying, “Spirit of Life, come to us, sing in our hearts, bring hope and renewal, bring love and justice, bring beauty and healing and resilience, come to us, whatever you are, wherever your source.”

This is our voice. We are a Spirit of Life people. From this point forward, into our next fifty years and beyond, we go deeper and deeper into this world—this world both achingly beautiful, and tragically broken. Deeper and deeper we go, and though we will continue to face adversarial winds of one form or another—wildness without and wildness within—our voice which is our heartbeat and our heartsong and our destiny will keep us company, 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 Spirit of Life people, more and more people saying with us,

Sing in our hearts all the stirrings of compassion.
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.