River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

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Unitarian Universalism in Eight Minutes Flat

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, September 17, 2000

Rev. Scott W. Alexander
Rev. Lynn Strauss
Denny Davidoff


Scott Alexander:


As most of you know, I can talk pretty fast, so one approach to summarizing Unitarian Universalism in 8 minutes flat, is to talk like this and squeeze a full 25 minute sermon into the next 8 minutes…[SCOTT INHALES, AND SLOWS HIS SPEECH DOWN TO A NORMAL PACE]

But to spare you that craziness…why don't I just try (instead, in the next 8 minutes) to be as succinct and precise as possible about what I believe to be the essence of our faith? Here goes…

Unitarian Universalism is a lifelong journey of developing kinship, caring and connection with the precious life that is within and around you. Practicing our religion (being a Unitarian Universalist) is all about spending a lifetime intentionally (through everyday spiritual and ethical practice) creating an evermore intricate web of blessed belonging and responsible relatedness with all the life (that surges - so miraculously, yet so vulnerably -- within and around you). Ours is a lifestyle religion (not a doctrinal one) that spiritually beckons all human beings out of the dark and empty chamber of the isolated self into the sunlight of responsive and reciprocal relationships -- with as wide a circle of life and persons as possible.

Unitarian Universalism is a hopeful, humanity-centered American faith tradition which (for more than 200 years) has dared to proclaim that human life on this earth can (and should) move toward evermore intricate patterns of harmony, justice, dignity and peace. We have always believed that the human enterprise (eternally fragile and foibled as it is) can nonetheless be transformed (bit-by-bit, by our thoughtful and compassionate efforts) into a more beautiful global fabric of decency, justice and freedom for all. As Unitarian Universalists, we are called by our centuries-old faith tradition to spend a lifetime lending ourselves to the creation of kinship. We are called upon to cultivate and nurture (on a daily basis…across the various venues and broad landscapes of our lives) the kinds of humane relationships that bring us (and the Dalai Lama, Jesus and other great prophets of humanity have taught) into close and compassionate connection with all that lives. If there is such a thing (such a spiritual place) as hell, surely it lies in this earthly life…coiled in seductive emptiness within the isolation and indifference toward life and being we allow in our human living. And if there is such a thing (such a spiritual place) as heaven, similarly it also lies quietly here, in this life, on this earth, in the milieu and moment of all the satisfying and reciprocal everyday relationships we can build with life and other persons (by honing our spiritual attentions and nurturing our relationships) with this intricate dance of life we so miraculously find ourselves in.

This Unitarian Universalist journey of developing kinship (and lending ourselves to a better, more just, interconnected world) must (by both physical and spiritual logic) begin, within the individual self…as we work spiritually (on a daily basis, through spiritual practices of discernment, restraint and engagement) to build within us an interior architecture of decency, sensitivity and care. Religious human beings are works in progress, who intentionally strive (by the light of their highest principles and by the work of everyday spiritual practice) to find responsible (and joyful) ways of being woven into in the world which contribute (often in the small ways which make such a big difference in this troubled world of ours) to the softening, saving and sanctifying of life. So the Unitarian Universalist journey toward (what I have often called from this pulpit the journey of) right relation, depth relation, caring relation with life and other persons begins inside us and then (again through practicing our principles) moves out (in expanding ripples of responsive and responsible relationship) to ever wider circles of life and community. Again…it is from the strength and integrity of our interior spiritual and ethical architecture (which we are - at our best -- tinkering with and honing on a nearly daily basis) that we move out into the world to both enjoy and care for the natural world and other persons around us, and participate (with others of good will) in the creation of ever-wider structures of beauty, justice and goodness.

Now, let there be no mistaking what this journey means. Spending a lifetime as a Unitarian Universalist developing your everyday kinship, caring and connection in your living is (in addition to being so obviously soul satisfying because of the divine life connections that get created) also very demanding, daunting and difficult. Being a committed, disciplined Unitarian Universalist often means making hard spiritual and ethical choices, and requires us to regularly reach out to make difficult connections and demanding sacrifices on behalf of other life and persons (especially when it comes to ensuring social, racial and economic justice which have proven so elusive for our human family. Some (like Garrison Keillor in the rather silly cowboy skit we enjoyed earlier in the service) persist in imagining us a light-weight, low-demand, "feel good", do-and-believe-anything-you want religion. But our faith (if truly practiced and lived out of our daily human relationships) is rather a hard-working, serious lifestyle faith of daily sensitivity, service, compassion and sacrifice. Unitarian Universalism is a joyful religion that unashamedly celebrates the great and mysterious gift of human being, but it is also a religion which understands (deep to its heart) the weighty responsibilities that come with finding ourselves as STEWARDS and CITIZENS of earth and one another. The great magic trick in one's spiritual and religious life is to balance, 1) the joy one takes from the delight of finding oneself alive in so profligate a creation, and 2) the duty one feels to find for ever wider structures of justice, peace, and equality.

Well…it's time for me to wrap up. The journey of Unitarian Universalism (both for us individually and as a gathered congregation) is an intentional, compassionate (and often just plain enjoyable!) journey of developing kinship…a journey of growing and giving ourselves so that we move evermore gently, joyfully and responsibly through our world…building purposeful patterns of right relation, depth relation, caring relation with all we meet and touch. This lifelong journey of religious care and discernment is one that asks much of us…but the rewards, my dear UU friends, (both for ourselves and other life) are nothing short of divine. Nothing short of divine.



Lynn Strauss:

I have not found being a Unitarian Universalist to be an easy path.

To be a good UU causes me to so engage my doubts, my responsibilities, and my freedoms as to make my life miserable.

Now that is, not altogether true, I’m not miserable most of the time, but I submit that one essence of Unitarian Universalism is struggle. If you are not struggling, at least from time to time, with how to live this faith, then you may not be experiencing the fullness of our liberal tradition.

The problem stems in large part from our belief that we can make a difference. To be a person of faith, means that how we live matters. Each of our lives can make a difference….and it is up to us to discern how to use our gifts and our resources in ways that make a difference for good in the world. This is also the challenge for congregations. How can we make a difference for the common good.


I have found that people considering membership in our congregations take our principles and purposes very seriously. They sense, that the choice they are about to make may keep them awake some nights. They know they’re not joining a feel-good religion.

 One woman came to us in her seventies. She had been a bit of a recluse, but had decided that she needed more social interaction. She drove almost an hour to get to our church….the nearest to her rural home. Before she came she called and asked that literature be sent…and a copy of our newsletter. Then she called me, the minister of the church, saying she had some serious questions. She sat down in my office and began by saying that she really didn’t think she could become a Unitarian. Why I asked….because I don’t much like people she said….I haven’t found all people to be of dignity and worth. I find people very difficult, she said, I much prefer animals. It turns out she was the local animal rights activist, the one who wrote all those letters to the editor on behalf of species that can’t write for themselves.

For this lady of integrity, living our first principle, affirming the worth and dignity of all people, is definitely a struggle.

 One family I know struggled because they taught their daughter to value all world religions and to be open to many truths, yet they were conflicted when she choose to attend a conservative Christian church and soon converted to Christianity.

 At times we wish, that ours was a more comforting religion. One UU friend struggled for several years to understand the suicide of his wife. He could not say it was "God’s will" and therefore he sought for an answer that satisfied. He read widely, he sought counsel, he spent time in contemplation, he grieved deeply; our faith encouraged his search. Our faith affirmed his anger. Our faith walked with him on his difficult path. Our faith gave him the freedom and acceptance that he needed to heal.

As you know, I have come recently from a UU congregation in the Bible belt. In that conservative religious environment, we UU’s struggle everyday. There we are less challenged to accept people that are different from us than we are challenged by being excluded because we are different from the dominant culture.

The struggle to be a faithful UU is a struggle to be proud of. It puts us in a line with those who have sacrificed much for our faith.

For our faith was born in struggle. Because we began in doubt, challenging doctrines and hierarchies – people gave their lives for the religious freedom that we now cherish.

Because we encourage the free mind, we must always think critically, always engage with new ideas. Always ask our questions. As UU’s we are always learning, and at times this is a struggle. There is no final answer upon which we can rest.

Because we hold no transcendent authority, we must make our own decisions. And often we struggle with the burden of our freedom. Because for us, revelation is not sealed, there is a wealth of sources upon which to draw. It can be a struggle to discern the truth, and the meaning of our lives. Because we do not believe in salvation after death, we struggle to be liberated in this life. To free our spirit and know our full selves. To engage with our own limitations and failings to fight evil in the world and close to home.

Because our principles call us to affirm the worth and dignity of each person, to stand for equality and freedom and democratic practice….our work for justice is on-going.

We struggle for freedom for all peoples. We struggle to change the world, sustain the world, love the world.

Because we know that we are interdependent with all life, we struggle to honor life, to affirm life, to say yes to life….even in the face of death.

And finally, Unitarian Universalism is a faithful struggle because we celebrate change. We rejoice in the new. We commit to creativity. We always draw the circle larger. We are never satisfied. The potential for transformation is always waiting….we cannot cease from searching.

I invite you to join in the struggle. Our legacy, our values have power in them. Without a vision the people perish. Join in the struggle for a world of peace, a world of harmony, a world of respect and compassion for all.

Join in the struggle of our free faith. It isn’t easy. And it may change your life. And your life may change someone else’s life.

And then you will have made a difference and then you will be blessed among women and

Amen.Amen/Blessed Be/Shalom



Denny Davidoff:

Andrew McLaren, the Director of The Little Red School House in New York City, my husband's 1st through 8th grade alma mater, wrote in the most recent alumni newsletter:

The best way I can define the purpose of education is that it is to transcend the treadmill of thought and emotion, in which one always finishes up where one starts.

This troubling pedagogical and, let's face it, societal instinct to conclude first and think later, to resist looking and feeling and thinking outside the box of one's own experience could be applied as well to religious thought and practice and, yes, teaching.

I was raised in a conservative Jewish home by parents who were the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe. My parents were well educated and assimilated and successful. They self-identified as New Deal liberals. They were living the great dream of America that had driven their parents to escape pogroms and poverty, to come to seek a better life on these shores. Mom and Dad offered my brother and me advantages and middle class privilege. They offered us freedom to think and dream, but the offer did not cover religious training. They could not and, later on, would not be able to imagine a child of theirs who would question Hebrew scripture or its very core of Jewish religious belief, the Sh'ma: "Hear O Israel, the Lord Thy God, the Lord is One."  They could not imagine much less sanction a child of theirs leaving the tent or the covenant.

But in my college years at Vassar, I began to do just that. Twenty years before the emergence of a vocabulary of feminist religious thought, I cringed from the patriarchy, resisted the chains of orthodoxy, peeked tentatively outside the box walls that felt so stultifying. What was out there?

Well, you know what was out there, awaiting my discovery at age 28, now forty years ago. Unitarianism, just one year away from becoming Unitarian Universalism. That's what was out there!

It is my practice to take time to consciously acknowledge the gift of life almost every day. I look at the world about me and acknowledge awe before the miracles of nature. I acknowledge the joy of family, the blessings of health and the comfort of substantial material possessions. It took me a while to realize that this practice is actually meditation, perhaps it is prayer. It is a personal religious ritual, simple and at the same time complex and, I believe, very Unitarian Universalist. Given the freedom to figure out how to be conscious of the grace in my life, disobliged to repeat a litany not of my choosing, encouraged to be awake to wonder, I can see that I am growing into the life of a serious religionist. I love this facet of Unitarian Universalism more than any other. The imperative to learn, to discover, to not necessarily finish up where one starts. I may have started by running from the religion of my childhood but I'm running faster and faster to my religion now. How lucky can we get to have this opportunity for spiritual sustenance and deep worship experience! The challenge is to get more of us to understand and value the gift.

Stephen Covey, author of the book First Things First, writes:

We settle for the illusion society sells us that meaning is in self-focus - self esteem, self-development, self improvement - "It's what I want," "Let me do my own thing," "I did it my way." But the wisdom literature of thousands of years of history repeatedly validates the reality that the greatest fulfillment in improving ourselves comes in our empowerment to more effectively reach out and help others. Meaning is in contribution, in living for something higher than self.

Living for something higher than self. I think that's why we are gathered here this morning. I think that's the essence of our common call as Unitarian Universalists.


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