Let This Be Our Testimony

by BC

Our reading today comes to us from a traditional Inuit wisdom teaching, translated by Edward Field, titled “Magic Words.”

In the very earliest time,
when both people and animals lived on earth,
a person could become an animal if he wanted to and an animal
could become a human being.
Sometimes they were people
and sometimes animals
and there was no difference.
All spoke the same language.
That was the time when words were like magic.
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance
might have strange consequences.
It would suddenly come alive
and what people wanted to happen could happen—
all you had to do was say it.
Nobody could explain this:
That’s the way it was.

My life before ministry was working in a library. It was a work that I enjoyed. It had a balance of order and mess, depth and lightheartedness — and it attracted many different types of people, both patrons of the library and employees. It was, looking back, like its own type of ministry.

The sermons were in the books, the congregation had plenty of visitors, people pledged money by way of taxes and fines — except there really was no choice in that one, and the clergy were the dispensers of books, the librarians and clerks. I loved the work. Perhaps one day long from now I will retire to it.

I worked with a rather diverse set of people — but what was interesting to me is that many of them were Unitarians. They went to the church I grew up in, they were mostly quiet about it, but it was wonderful to learn of their existence throughout the years. Every now and then, though, we would get someone on the staff that was of a fundamentalist opinion.

Religion wasn’t really a big deal at the library, but on slower nights you would get to talking — and since the library attracts quite a few introverted types, the talking was never small, it was also very focused. One evening, while checking in books, a coworker turned to me and asked, “I heard you’re going to seminary.” I responded yes. “And it’s, Unitarian, right?” Yes, again. “Well I’m a Christian,” she responded.

Naturally I felt some sense of dread at her response. Not because she was Christian, but this wasn’t the first time such a conversation came to me and I bet it sounds familiar to many of you. So we began having a conversation and she probed and probed and I answered and answered, she was curious, but it quickly turned awkward.

“I just don’t get your religion, Brian.” Frustrated with her response, I gave up, handed her a little card with our principles and purposes on it that I kept in my wallet and I quietly congratulated myself. Surely she would get it now. I had done well. She read the little card, nodded, pursed her lips a couple times, and looked up to me and said, “How could anyone disagree with this? This isn’t a religion.”

When you’re a Unitarian Universalist, awkward conversations around religion are often par for the course. It’s one of those extra benefits of membership that we don’t tell you about when you join one of our congregations. But it’s there.

And it can often be relentless, especially in a culture where the first two questions you are asked upon meeting someone new are, “Where you from?” or sometimes, “Do you got people?” and “Where do you go to church?” Whether or not we are Unitarian Universalist the questions would be there, but often when we throw those eleven syllables at people, it leads to more and more questions.

Now, as a minister, I love questions, but yes, even I try to avoid having to explain who we are: in the barbers chair, at the dentist or doctor, with the guy preparing our mortgage. Perhaps I’m just being a curmudgeon, perhaps it’s something more.

Truly, though, one of the delights of being a Unitarian Universalist is that often our chosen faith sparks great interest amongst the people we encounter on a daily basis. Our family, our friends, our coworkers, all those who come upon us — and anywhere where for whatever reason, the discussion turns to religion.

It can also be one of the most annoying things about being a Unitarian Universalist. People want specific answers on pointed subjects — what do you believe about God? What do you believe about heaven? So and and so forth and the one I get most often as a minister, Can you get married?

I’m grateful there is a curiosity, but I’m also always wondering why not many people know about us in the first place. We might be a small world religion, but wherever you turn in the history of this nation, there are Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists popping up everywhere — always getting involved, always having an opinion, always pushing us toward justice or perhaps just trying to. We are a busy people.

Often what I’ve found is that people do indeed know many of the more famous people we can actually claim as being part of our faith, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Susan B. Anthony, Rod Serling, Christopher Reeve, Kurt Vonnegut, the list goes on and on. People know most of those names. But what the don’t know, even if they intimately know their work, they don’t know the beliefs, the Unitarian Universalist faith, that inspired them.

Truthfully, it can be very hard to differentiate Unitarian Universalism as a religion to people that are unfamiliar with our “covenantal” way of being religious. We hold ourselves to shared promises and accountability to those promises, not determinations on theology, but theopraxy — how we act out our faith with each other and the world.

And to do such a thing requires a lot of words, because yes, it is so much easier to say we believe in xyz, but it is so much harder to outline not only our diversity in belief but what we mean when we say covenant, because we aren’t talking about Moses here, or when we say right relationship or living our values.

For those of us that have been UU for quite some time, those things make sense to us. Or at least I hope they should, they are the cornerstones of Unitarian Universalism. But to other people and even to our newcomers, these common practices are learned and understood by living them in order to believe them, not the other way around.

But on top of that, it can be hard to parse out for people what exactly it means to be a religious liberal — because it certainly does not always mean liberal politics for all of our members, and that certainly shouldn’t be the thread that holds Unitarian Universalism together.

I know I have had difficulty, even as a Unitarian Universalist minister, to tell people just who we are, especially in moments that require clarity and groundedness, such as in our justice efforts or in the face of confident fundamentalism. And I know I’m not alone in this. Think for a moment of the times you’ve fumbled, perhaps gloriously, in trying to say what your Unitarian Universalist faith is or means to you.

Was it with the Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon at the door? Was it with your barber or hairdresser? The taxi or uber driver that asks a lot of questions? And if it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. Often the answers that are expected of us are pieces of information that tell others who we are and what we are known for. It is one of those essential aspects of human curiosity, we want to know what someone or something does.

The Catholics are known for believing the wafer is the actual flesh of Christ, the Orthodox are known for their very elaborate and solemn rituals, Quakers for their silence, Mormons for their bicycles and skinny black ties. But what are we known for? What have we communicated to the world that make others go, ahhhh, yes, the Unitarians.

In my experience, when people think they know who we are, it often boils down to “You can believe anything!” or “You believe nothing!” Surely many people get this idea from not quite understanding Unitarian Universalism, but I wonder how much of this misconception comes from what we are saying about ourselves.

Like that co-worker of years ago where I gave her a card and hoped that would end the discussion, have you ever found yourself not wanting to have that discussion and either nodding and smiling and just hoping the conversation would end? Don’t you sometimes just want to tell people to go away when the conversation turns toward religion? I know I’ve wanted to, and I have.

And oh the guilt at doing so. Because what we say or, especially, what we don’t say about who we are as a faith community fills in the blanks for people that do not know of us. And to expect the culture around us to be one of religious scholars is a lofty hope — we are in a nation where close to 70 percent of the population is unfamiliar with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation…and this is, still, an overwhelmingly Protestant nation.

So I don’t take it personally that people don’t know who Unitarian Universalists are. What this does is underscore the importance of speaking our truths and making the speaking of truth a, dare I say it, sacramental practice. Now, Unitarian Universalism will almost never be described as a sacramental religion.

We are not even close to Catholics or Episcopalians. And for those of you that used to be Catholic or Episcopalian or even Lutheran — I bet you remember your catechisms: A sacrament is defined as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. There simply is no forgetting that line.

So with that definition — outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace — is there anything like that in Unitarian Universalism? To ask further, with the word “sacrament” aside, how are we expressing the truths we find in ourselves and the truths we find in community?

The spiritual graces we find in Unitarian Universalism are not necessarily rooted in something from on high, but they are indeed rooted in the experiences that have led us to this place and the beloved community we hope to find.

We are rooted in community and we all have chosen to be here and we choose to be Unitarian Universalist. And with those choices, there is no pathway to enlightenment or salvation, no creedal obligation — they truly are deeply personal choices that require the heart and mind. So what brought you here? What keeps you here? What is the foundation of your identity as a Unitarian Universalist?

From those answers, whatever they may be, so long as they are earnest and a reflection of that innermost self, then we begin to find the pulse of this faith. A friend of mine long ago once thought he was criticizing me when he suggested that my own interest in religion was not in the beliefs themselves, but in how people believe. It’s absolutely true.

How people believe is more important to me than the details of the belief. And what I mean by “how” is that transcendent moment which calls people to their faith. Much of what Unitarian Universalism is about is the “how” instead of the “what” — we gather, each coming with our own, hopefully, transcendent experiences that draw us to religious liberalism.

And it needs to be said, with those many and varied experiences — as long as they aim for the good and right, as long as they are rooted in harmony and wholeness, and as long as they call us back to our best selves, then they are welcome — we do not accept beliefs or behaviors that are destructive, but for those that are life-giving, we say yes and amen.

Those transcendent moments are felt in every justice gathering, in every hymn, in every sharing of our diverse and life-giving paths, and, for me, in looking to the choirs of stars above and feeling a deep and embracing silence. That is my faith. That is the transcendent moment for me — and it calls for me to be a committed and whole person — it calls for me to be wholehearted.

Wholeheartedness is, I believe, one of the defining characteristics of being a Unitarian Universalist. It encompasses our social justice work — every march and protest, every campaign and cause of passion, it reaches out to intellect — asking us to engage, learn, and deepen our knowledge, it makes room for the spiritual and teaches us that it is no different than the physical — we are as perfect as we will ever be it says, our bodies are good we are reminded, sexuality, love, emotions, those are good too.

Just as the covenants, the promises that anchor each congregation require of us a commitment to communicate, to forgive, and to work together, the personal side of Unitarian Universalism is a call to explore inwardly and outwardly, to engage that which is different, and to learn about ourselves — so that we may be a more wholehearted and loving people.

The way to wholeheartedness is a way to and through truth-telling, with a capital T, even in the face of difficulty. And as a faith community, not just here but all Unitarian Universalists, we have some work to do. The co-worker I mentioned earlier was not the only incident where I had a failure of nerve to share clearly why my faith meant so much to me — it’s happened many times, some more recent than I’d like.

I believe the hesitation to share has to do with an allergy to sharing our faith. How often have you heard a UU speak with the caveat, “Oh, but we never, ever, evangelize. We don’t do that.” It’s something I know I hear a lot, and I’ve said it a lot myself in some way.

This refusal to share is a practice that has only been with us in recent history. Our tradition was not always fearful of sharing its faith openly. There were Unitarian “vans” — which looked like covered wagons, that would go from city center to city center offering information on Unitarianism in the 19th century. Universalists would set up shop anywhere and preach until at least one person stopped to listen.

I believe much of this fear of proselytizing has very much to do with the bad examples that have gone before us — the hellfire and brimstone preachers and persistent door-to-door religion peddlers. But there is a very fine line between the proselytizing we’ve experienced where it tells us it is their way or the highway and the kind that shares a moment of personal or communal transcendence that has changed lives.

If someone were to come to my door and share the how of their belief, the reason it inspires them and makes them a better person, to me that would be interesting. Sadly much of our experience here in the United States with proselytizing is with Christian fundamentalism, and it gives a bad name to speaking up and sharing the good news of ones faith.

For this reason, I believe, our truths as Unitarian Universalists have been quietened, and we are often not heard or we avoid speaking altogether. Yet here is where I believe we can dig deeper still. If our justice work, our covenants in community, our open and diverse beliefs — if they are to have any merit beyond knowing they exist here in this room and other UU sanctuaries, we need to speak up.

We need to share that wholehearted commitment to this way of being religious. We need not go door to door, we need not hand out pamphlets on street corners, but when we are asked — and we will be asked, we need to take that testimonial from our hearts and put it on display for all to see. It is a spiritual practice — and especially so for Unitarian Universalists. To lay bare the transcendence and wonder that brought us to this place.

For me, it is to share the testimony of the stars, the source of my awe, the lifeblood of what gives me not purpose or creed — but an invitation to greater curiosity. Ask yourself, what brings you wonder? What brings you here?

Since the journey to Unitarian Universalism is often a solitary one — our sacrament — our outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace — is the testimony of our hearts, and we need not fear sharing that.

People will disagree, people will challenge, but meekness — meekness in the face of the world that still has hellfire and damnation, still has people deemed unworthy, still has injustice, still is heartbreaking as much as it is beautiful — such meekness will only lend itself to the continuation of the idea that we are a church that believes in anything or nothing — instead of a church that believes in unwavering love.

There is a distinction, and it is up to us to speak that truth. I have no illusions that if I suddenly found the words for my coworker or all those before or after her that have challenged my faith that they would have given up their opinions of Unitarian Universalism — but they would at least know that while they have a book to counter my faith, I have a wholehearted belief in the good and right that doesn’t blink in the face of angry god or hellfire, because such things cannot overcome the wonder I’ve found in Unitarian Universalism.

I realize that addressing religion in public or with friends and family is often considered taboo, but it still comes up, it is there, and it is mostly awkward. How do we address such a heated topic? How do we break the gag order Unitarian Universalism has put on itself? How do we reclaim our testimony? It begins simply.

There was a campaign not long ago that many Christian churches still engage in some way, called Six Word Stories of Faith. The goal was to state your faith with six words only. While I know that Unitarian Universalism often require far more words than that to explain it, it’s a good place to start if you are not sure where to begin. You can be up front: Unitarian Universalism seeks harmony and justice. You can wax poetic: Look to the good and right. Or, Rooted in Love, Reaching for Justice. That sounds like an amazing mission statement right there. Community for connection, renewal and transformation. There’s another one. Reaching deeper to be the way. And another.

This practice, whether it’s six words or twenty words, of thinking of that transcendent moment, that experience in your life that made you say, yes, I am a Unitarian Universalist, and yes, I still am a Unitarian Universalist, is a practice that will center your heart and your thoughts. That is the goal of such practices, to center ourselves, to prepare us for some future goal.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are not known for our prayers, our elaborate rituals if any, or our retelling of an ancient story, but let us be known for our testimony, our speaking truth to power and our speaking truth from the innermost place of our hearts. Words do have power — as that great inuit wisdom teaching shared with us.

A word spoken by chance
might have strange consequences.
It would suddenly come alive
and what people wanted to happen could happen—
all you had to do was say it.
Nobody could explain this:
That’s the way it was.

And, not to disagree with the Inuit, but that’s the way it still is. Let your words have power. Let your truth be clear. Unitarian Universalism has a great deal to share with the world yet — don’t fear sharing your journey, do so with wholeheartedness, do so with wonder and awe, do so because the words you share about radical love and acceptance just might be what someone needs to hear. Let that be your testimony.