Got Religion? Hallel-UU-jai!!

revised by Terry Woehr

This program was presented on 2011 May 15 at Mountain Light UUC as a modified version of the homily given by Eunice Benton at Mid-South's 2011 Annual Assembly, hosted at the Northwest UU Congregation of Atlanta

Good Morning!

Much of what I say today is liberally taken from Eunice Benton's sermon delivered to the Mid-South Annual Assembly of UU congregants in April. Myra and I were so enthralled by Eunice's words, to say nothing of her inspirational delivery of these words. Myra was quick to ask Eunice if there was any chance she would share this in written context. Eunice graciously gave Myra her original words, complete with scratch-outs, add-ins and other last minute adjustments.

Please excuse the lack of referencing every word or sentence of Eunice's. I am sure you will be able to discern her broader message from my more specific to MLUUC words.

There will be a few "audience participation" moments as I get further into this … when I ask y'all to shout, you need to reply "HALLE-UU-A" … with two U's! Let's try it now just to make sure you're with me: "Shout" HALLE-UU-A!!

When you think of the word "church", what does it mean to you? Eunice refers to the word "church" to mean a collective of people and messages and meanings that are Unitarian Universalist. As Eunice was considering her focus for this service she received an email from a young woman in one of our southern UU congregations and it reads:

Dear Eunice:

Does your church have any religion in it? I am serving on the Board of Trustees, and I am bothered about how little religion is involved in the whole thing. First thing I kept hearing was that the board was too large (there are 7 of us – which made me feel like I wasn't needed. Then we tried to introduce a church covenant, which went over like a lead balloon, so we dropped that. Then we started redoing the Long Range Plan – which is all about governance, facilities, programs and staffing. I feel like we could take out the church name and substitute any other civic group and it would work fine – there isn't any religion in it – it certainly is not inspiring. Is this normal? I have to admit that I am very emotional about the whole thing because I am very passionate about my religion. I feel like we UUs have to become more religious, spiritual, from the heart in all we do or we will continue to lose people and fail to attract people…"

This young woman's experience seemed to be the very antithesis of what we want our congregations to be… So, I am asking out loud the question of what "the church we want" would look like. I invite you to think along with me… and perhaps exploring this question further at the end of this.


Is MLUUC the kind I would want to find if I went looking for a spiritual and religious home

If I came to be a part of Sunday morning worship at MLUUC would I be touched, uplifted, and challenged to be the highest and best person I can be? Is my soul nourished?

Are there opportunities here at MLUUC for stretching myself – in mind and body as well as soul and spirit?

What opportunities would I find at MLUUC for deep spiritual connections? And, how might I, through MLUUC, reach out to help and heal the world?

Eunice and others keep asking these questions, but more voices asking would be better. I am, after all, only one person … my particular needs arise out of my own life experience. I don't come as someone unchurched or uneducated. I don't come as a Gen X-er or a Millennial … I don't identify as a person of color or as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. I am not a city girl.

It would be powerful to hear many persons – of many ages and backgrounds name the traits of the church they want to be a part of. Yes, more voices!!

Yes, YOUR voices!!

Eunice eloquently shared a short list of what she believes our UU churches should all share:

I believe, she states, we want our churches to be places where we honor the divine in all living things! It's our first principle – and the heart of our last one. We recognize the worth, dignity, and divinity of all beings… and we see the divine – the holy – in the "interdependent web of all existence"… It leads us to "Stand of the side of Love" and to care for our planet… and more. Do we, I ask you all, feel the same? Does MLUUC embrace this?

I believe we want our churches to be holy places – our kind of holy, of course, but holy! We should embrace that word and what it can mean.

I believe we want our congregations to live out our values – which are grounded in a love available to all – unthreatened by hell – (that's universalism!) – and lived out as justice and peace in our world.

Do all of you believe in this?

It could be easy for us in the South to just feel good that we even have UU congregations here – in these states that are known to vote "RED" and are steeped in the Bible Belt hell fire and brimstone message. But, just being here is NOT enough – Our congregations have to be rich in depth of spirit, generous and fully engaged in our communities and our world. And, we have to be a significant presence. I ask all of you who were with us last September "standing on the side of Love" across the street from the message of hate delivered by the KKK… was that a Significant presence? Was that act of witness by standing on the side of love what UUism, and more specifically, MLUUC and our religion are all about? Are there other issues in our communities where being a significant presence would bear fruit to our religion?

There are threesomes to address to get at some answers… trinities and triumvirates and triangles… The "holy trinity" of UUism insofar as I understand it to be is: MISSION, COVENANT, and VISION. We need each one to create the church we want to be.

Our congregation needs to know and affirm, and revisit and reaffirm and know all over again– these 3 elements:

  • What is our mission, our ministry; grounded in our values, what do we name as our purpose for being here?
  • What is our covenant? Covenants have both sacred and everyday aspects if they are real… we are "in covenant" with what we hold most high, most dear… and we are in covenant with those who share those values and aspirations. What specifically, do we agree to do – and not do. How do we agree to be in relationship?
  • And finally, what is our vision of what we want to be? What is our aspiration, our dream of the best and most we can be? How do we envision living out "The church we want to be?" How do we envision MLUUC?
And, just in case its not clear to you, the one of these three that this homily is about is the "vision" piece… assuming we have a clear sense of purpose and ministry and an understanding and agreement about what it means to be in covenant – what is our vision of what we want MLUUC to be?

This IS holy stuff we're talking about… and the doing of it is holy work! It's the stuff that should make us want to shout "HALLEL-UU-A… that's with two U's of course!

Now, this message would loose some power if it didn't note some of the characteristics we do NOT want in our congregations – including MLUUC.

Here's a quick list of the things that are not stuff of the kind of church we want to be:

  • The members are so tight with each other, so comfortable in the group of people who form the congregation, that there is no room for newcomers, especially for newcomers who are not exactly like themselves.
  • The main characteristic folks in the congregation talk about is that the church is 'different' and 'unique' a 'sanctuary' and 'refuge' from the culture around it. I surely hope our congregations can be places of refuge and strength – but, we can't hide in them. We can't hide in them and not engage with the outside world. Engaging with the world around us has to be part of who we are.
  • There is only one age and/or cultural group in the congregation… no mix of ages, of families and single folks, or of folks from various experiences and walks of life.
  • Sunday mornings are 'programs' with no spiritual depth or calling to those present to stretch themselves, to be their highest and best selves.
  • There is no awareness of being part of the larger faith that is Unitarian Universalism, no connection to neighboring congregations or our UUA… no sense of being 'in covenant' with the larger faith. The congregation is isolated, a too-special and mostly private 'club'.
  • There is big resistance to the language of reverence and transcendence – to words present in most spiritual and religious traditions. "God" especially – can't be used – because the congregation has not moved beyond being something 'other than' to standing 'for' its own values.
These examples – and the one in the email received from the young woman read earlier would NOT make us proud… but there IS some other good news – evangelical fervor, Even!

There is some newly-minted enthusiasm happening in our religion in this Southern corner of the world. And the word about it – a "SHOUT IT OUT" affirmation expressing this new energy – 'HALLEL-UU-A!!! That's HallelUUa with two Us!

Let's all try shouting it out, HALLEL-UU-A!!!

"How we should be governed" was the inviting topic that led to something called "The Orlando Platform". What was pivotal about The Orlando Platform was the fact we came together, from across the south, in respectful covenant! To talk with each other! Inspiring and enthusiastic and historic moments happened! We came together – in covenant – and we named how much we care about this rare faith – we're talking mission grounded in our values here! And what we want to do is make it more accessible to the world (coming up on a vision!!) This is truly historic and transforming news! New and improved structure may be wonderful, but the coming together was, well, the stuff to make you shout, HALLEL-UU-A!!! SHOUT IT AGAIN! HALLEL-UU-A!!

At the gathering in Orlando and in meetings of regional UU staff a great deal of what can only be called "spiritual enthusiasm" has erupted! So much so that many in our district now call the Southland district the "HallelUUa" Region! Halle-UU-a for our coming together to evangelize the south for Unitarian Universalism! Halle-UU-a!! At General Assembly in Charlotte in June, a regional ingathering will be held for the Southland… oops… the "HallelUUa Region!

And, there is more good news from another gathering of UUs just a few weeks ago called the UUA Multicultural Growth Consultation in Maryland. There, some vision statements were drafted that could add breadth and depth in a world increasingly multicultural – and this South is quite the multicultural place now, as data from the 2010 census tells us!

Here are some excerpts from this gathering:

About our Community Life – Our communities are bursting with people from a diversity of theologies, philosophies, ethnicities, cultures, colors, classes, gender identities, abilities, generations, sexual orientations, and political persuasions. We live a culture and covenant of "mi casa es tu casa" – my home is your home, my heart is your heart. We practice BOLD HOSPITALITY – as Myra so eloquently spoke about last week – with trust compassion and forgiveness. We recognize when we say "we" each day we mean one more.

About our WORSHIP – Our worship celebrates life, lifts up our highest values and connects us with the holy and with each other. It is vibrant, multi-modal, multicultural, and embodied. Music of all types is fully integrated into the worship experience. Language is clear and easily accessible; all elements of worship reflect and affirm a wide variety of cultures. Congregants have been prepared to take risks and transform along with the worship.

About our Justice Ministry – Our justice ministry is spiritually grounded in Unitarian Universalism. We work together to focus and integrate it into the life of the congregation. We understand on congregational identity, power, and social location. We are willing to use them and/or risk them in service of a more just, compassionate and sustainable world. We are honest about our past and our hopes for the future. We work for reconciliation when necessary. We celebrate what works and let go of what does not. We generously commit our time, talent, and treasure to more fully realize our values and vision in the world.

What wonderful stuff!!

The last "holy trinity" of ideas shared by Eunice Benton was named by Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs at the installation services for Rev. Anthony David at UUCA several years ago. Rob made three simple, powerful points – in his charge to the congregation and here's what he said:

I charge you to three duties:

  1. Strengthen yourselves by developing a personal devotional life, which includes but is not limited to weekly worship. Daily practice is the first key living a loving and effective life.
  2. Strengthen each other: By learning the skills of small group intimacy so that you can go deep quickly, especially with strangers. Listening well, being intimate and honest with others is, it seems to me, the second key.
  3. And lastly, when daily practice and intimate conversation inspire compassionate connection, put it to work. Ask yourselves, where are our values needed most? How can I best bless the world?

Do these three things, my friends, and your beloved church will flourish.

And remember: The church itself should never be first in your heart. That place is reserved for those values and aspirations you hold most high, in other words, for God alone. The church is a means and not an end. The church, at its best, invites us into an experience of the Holy. That experience, in turn breaks open our hearts allowing compassion to radiate out to bless the world.

The kind of church Rob was talking about has "religion in it". It is, Eunice believes, the kind of church we want to be.

Let us go forth, with hearts broken open to share all the love we have, to be the faith community, the church, the religion we mean to be, so that we may richly bless our world.

HALLEL-UU-A!! And may it be so...