Many of us find our way to our UUism by way of a Christian beginning, and many of us have wounds from our Christian past. Such wounding can at times limit our openness and appreciation of the religion from which UUism emerged. This Sunday we will take a candid look at our wounds, and consider a path toward healing.
Rev. Lori Kyle joined the UUCD family as our congregation's spiritual leader in October 2014. Following her recent successful interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in Boston, Lori was ordained at Toronto First on June 14, 2015. Lori is a native of Kansas City, Missouri and moved to Canada in 2009 with her family. Currently she resides in eastern Toronto with her fiancée Margaret, her children Maddie and Nathan, and their yellow lab Sally.
The complete sermon can be read below:
Our message today begins with a story that I wish wasn’t true. The setting is Chicago, or more specifically, Meadville Lombard UU seminary. I was there taking my very first divinity school class - a summer course called “Pragmatism and Theology”. I don’t exactly remember what we were discussing, but what I do remember is the hot water I unwittingly got myself into.
It was mid week of this week-long course, and since we’d been there several days I was feeling pretty comfortable in my setting. We were discussing the ideas of several philosophers, and somehow the issue of Christian theology got brought up. I made some sideways eye-rolling comment about considering a Christian standpoint if we had to. Several other such disparaging comments had been previously made by fellow students so I felt safe in my smugness.
The instructor stopped the class right there and then, and admonished all of us for our intolerance of Christianity. I specifically remember him saying, “I’m sick and tired of hearing comments like this from students who seem to overlook the fact that our religion came directly from Christianity, and we are still largely Christian in many of the ways we as UUs do the business of religion.”
They didn’t hear a peep out of me the rest of the day.
As soon as he spoke I knew he spoke the truth. I had humiliated myself, and more importantly, in those smug moments I had become the antitheses of my beloved faith’s trademark claim of inclusivity.
I wish it could be said that my smugness back then was the only time a Unitarian Universalist ever behaved in this way. While it wouldn’t be fair to say that all UUs have, I can safely say that many of us, at some point, have.
I wonder if part of the reason for this kind of division is because it’s so close to us, like a family member that’s easy to find fault with. It seems that the relationship that our faith, as a whole, has with Christianity is similar to that of a young adult with a parent…the upstart with the ancestor. Part of youth is rebellion, a turning away from some degree from that from which we came.
I have a vision in my head of a young adult who is having an argument with her father, who we’ll name Christian. The argument is over Christian’s disapproval of his daughter’s friends, those with whom she experiences connection and makes meaning in the world. But these aren’t the kinds of friends or meaning-making that her father would choose…they’re too hippy dippy, not conventional enough, too fringy and seemingly without purpose in life.
But the daughter finds great meaning and purpose in these friends, and shouts, “You don’t even know them to know how wonderful they are…they fit for me! Because of lingering tensions and feeling marginalized, AND because the daughter doesn’t like some of her father’s friends as much as he doesn’t like hers, division occurs. A bit of bitterness sets in. Wounds turn to scars.
The relationship, however, isn’t completely severed. There is still the cursory holiday celebrations….Christmas is often celebrated, sometimes even Easter too. But in day-to-day life, the relationship is often tenuous. What the offspring says to her peers about her father is frequently negative.
She could be saying, “We just have different ways of seeing things. And because of those differences he’s said and done things that have been hurtful. So I’ve moved to this part of town because it’s where I’m at home now. But I still love and respect my dad, because he’s more than just those instances of hurtfulness. My dad Christian can be loving, insightful, and even inspiring. And I’d be foolish to throw all of that away because of the hurts and differences.” She could say that. But instead frequently she rolls her eyes and says, “Christian is stupid.”
She even makes up the acronym ABC…Anybody But Christian. Have any of you heard that acronym before? It’s out there…I didn’t make it up.
There’s a rub with Christianity within our faith that exceeds how we feel about any other faith tradition. There can be many other reasons for the rub… intolerance of intolerance, our own doctrine-like position to not have doctrines, frustration with theological messages of "My Way or the Highway"…. and the list goes on depending on our experiences and our personal theologies.
If you have some reservations about Christianity perhaps you can relate to the sentiments of Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who said:
"When I say that I am a Christian, the common assumption is that
- I believe the Bible is universally authoritative, inerrant, infallible, and mostly literal.
- Many people assume that I am skeptical of science, distrusting of “liberals”,
- and that I think being homosexual is simply “a lifestyle” of which I disagree with.
- I judge non-Christians to hell, and am awaiting Jesus to return any day now.
- I believe that 95% of scientists have colluded to create a clandestine society in order to fake the rest of the world out about evolution and global warming.
Well here’s the thing, I am part of a growing group of Christians who are very much the opposite of everything I just stated. I am part of a movement of Christians who are applying modern education and logic to reframe what it means to call ourselves “Christians.””
As with all faith groups, there is a spectrum of Christians and how faith is lived. I’ve experienced that first hand.
My family has made it clear years ago that none of them (four siblings and our mother) would attend any wedding I would ever have. And they made good on that, and will make good on it again.
I’ve done my best to make my peace with that, although you never really do.
And then there was the issue of ordination. As soon as I entered seminary I started fretting… would they at least come to what would be the most significant event, just for me, in my life. Any of you who were at the ordination might remember that when it came time to call forth family members for the laying on of the hands, only my kids and my partner and her Christian family were there.
Of course I knew why… it was the same general theology that is applied to same sex weddings. Afterward my sister acknowledged this when she said, “It comes down to the Jesus thing. Nothing trumps that Jesus is primary… there’s no budging on that, regardless of how it might hurt you.”
Well, it has hurt me. It has pierced my heart, and the wound isn’t yet healed. I’ve grappled plenty with the hypocrisy… how do you embrace the Christian message of love but then not hold your arms wide open?
It’s so easy to be judgmental.
But then I think back to hypocritical instances in my own life, like in that classroom in Chicago. We are called as UUs to ask ourselves if we too exercise hypocrisy regarding how wide open our arms are. For instance, how truly welcoming are we to those that might want to bring a set of Christian beliefs to our congregation?
We’re trying to grow, and who make up the vast majority of who we are reaching out to… people with faith history that includes Christianity of some type… those who aren’t decidedly anti-Christianity, but simply aren’t inspired enough by what they hear in a conventional setting, but still and always will consider some aspect of Christianity to be home?
How welcome here would the person be, who really likes Jesus, but can’t put on the cloak of mainstream Christianity any more, given what they consider to be a distortion of a lovely tradition by some of its representatives?
This reminds me of in inquiry letter that was received during my internship in Peterborough from a young mother who was seeking a new spiritual home.
Her note said,
“I don’t have a strong affiliation with any faith group, but I like what Jesus had to say. I’m not comfortable, though, with some of the judgmental positions Christians take on matters such as gay marriage. Now I’m searching for more depth in my life, more of a connection with God, in a community that appreciates the Christian message without the judgment.”
How welcome would this woman be in our midst? How much would she see our principles embodied in our words and deeds and innuendo regarding Christianity?
Recently I had a phone conversation with someone else who was inquiring about Unitarian Universalism. In this call we reviewed each Principle, line by line. After the call I pondered how a rub with Christianity fits in with our Principles.
Would you be interested in our faith, if the cornerstone of that faith, contained this Guidelines for Living:
We covenant to recognize and celebrate…
1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person, except people who see Jesus as divine;
2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations, but not as much with conservatives;
3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth, as long as they’re ultra liberal, like us;
4. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, including (we guess) the right-wingers.
Being called to differentiate between the oppressive messages and the overarching faith tradition and the man whose life it’s all based on is a tall order. While sometimes the math still doesn’t add up, and my heart wants to turn away to protect itself, my soul knows that I’m called to separate the hurts burned with a Jesus branding iron from Jesus the man.
I think being a student at a Christian seminary helped me to give me a leg up in this process. Nearly everything presented to us came through a Christian lens. At first it was tiresome, and I had to remind myself over and over that enrolling in a Christian school meant I’d be subjected to a lens that wasn’t the more panoramic lens to which I was accustomed.
But when I applied myself to leave the chip on my shoulder at the classroom door, and to look for ways to apply what I was hearing to my own theology, the skies got bluer, the chip got smaller, the lessons got clearer, and my spirit got lighter… one might say enlightened to some degree.
Many of us are still on the road to healing, to forgiveness, to enlightenment. As we strive to appreciate the differences between Jesus and the religion that humans formulated about him, and the beauty of that religion offers despite interpretations of it by some of its ambassadors.
One of the many beauties of this tradition and its ambassadors is their emphasis on prayer. We’re social beings, and communing with what is sacred and holy to us is actually a natural act. I’d like to end by asking you to join me in a prayer, based on a Christian prayer taken from Psalm 16:
Could I ever truly understand how much I receive from you?
The fullness of your great love,
The splendour of your creation,
The goodness of your people,
The bounty of your daily grace.
Every day upon my awaking
I receive the bequest of gifts
That I never could have earned,
Given because of your generosity.
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