Our faith development director shares a bit of her faith journey and tells what she has learned at Memorial UCC.
Before I tell you what I see when I look out on to this congregation and what I see in being a follower of Jesus, I’m going to tell you a bit about my spiritual journey.
I was raised Catholic and although some former Catholics refer to themselves as “recovering Catholics” I stay away from that kind of language because that implies there’s something wrong with that religious path. Although, it’s a path I decided not to follow there is beauty in it, I have found beauty in all religions.
My religious education was lacking. I went to catechism calss every Wednesday, semi-regular Sunday service attendance (always 8 a.m.) and I was confirmed, but despite all that I still didn’t have a strong foothold in my beliefs.
Teachers were hard to come by and I was always given the impression that they were doing it reluctantly. Sometimes a teacher would quit mid-year so we didn’t have classes until they could get another volunteer. I often complained that classes went over the Ten Commandments and friendship way too many times and nothing beyond that. I remember most of the time we just sat around listening to the boys talk about football and wrestling.
Once we were told if we continued to be loud in class we’d have to sit and read the Bible. Reading the Bible was our punishment. At the end of each year we had to take a test to see if we were ready to go to the next grade level. We were allowed to take the final test with an open book since there was no way any of us knew the answers without looking.
My religious education in the church was seen as unimportant by the teachers, not by my parents, but the volunteers and my peers. Surprisingly, I didn’t see it that way.
My senior year in high school – I went to public school – was also my confirmation year. That year my English teacher assigned us a term paper on any topic we wanted. I chose Wicca or Witchcraft after watching a movie and being fascinated by it.
Little did I know that that decision would literally change my life forever. I wouldn’t be the person I am today had I not made that decision. It was the first time I had learned about another faith. I had always been told that all other faiths were wrong. All were going to hell except us Christians. There was some question about the non-Catholics and where they would end up, I figured Purgatory, but eventually they’d be let in.
I found it terrifying to learn that Wicca was not a religion of Satan and animal sacrifices but a religion of do unto others as you would want done undo you. Or whatever you send out will come back threefold. It’s a nature religion that reveres women, honors the Earth and respects animals, things not necessarily seen as a vital part of Catholicism.
Magic isn’t about casting love spells or trying to control other people, it is about healing, centering yourself and praying for things you need in life. It was a religion I found myself immediately drawn to. For me, I was always told God had no gender but we used the word male. I would always pray to the Virgin Mary because I figured she knew my problems better than a man.
Praying to a Goddess, just referring to God as a woman, was a wonderful and freeing experience for me. But despite all of this I found it terrifying because if I was so wrong about the Pagans, who and what else was I wrong about? What about all the other religions out there?
So there was a lot going on in my head at that time but Jesus was always there, I never questioned him. For me, Jesus was a man who had divinity in him. I never understood the Trinity and just looked at Jesus as a man that had God-like qualities and if we would all live a perfect life we too could be like Jesus. Now, I’m not going to say that what I learned was from my Sunday school upbringing, from the church or my parents. I don’t really know where I got a lot of this.
This was a challenging time because what I always held to be true was no longer true for me. I was finally questioning my beliefs and I didn’t like not being told what to think and believe. I remember telling a Pagan priestess that I really loved Wicca but couldn’t shake Jesus out of my belief system. She suggested that maybe Paganism wasn’t for me and that I should take a religion class.
I was floored. It was the first time someone didn’t try to convert me. In fact, it’s against their beliefs to proselytize. For me, I had always heard my religion was the way or else. So in college I took a religion class, then another, then another. Eventually, I decided to minor in it and in the end it was my major.
During this time I found myself drifting further and further way from Christianity. Jesus still had a place in my heart but now that I was no longer studying Christianity from a faith perspective but from an academic standpoint, Jesus became more of an interesting historical figure, similar in many ways to the Pagan Gods. He could turn water into wine like the God Dionysus and raise people from the dead like Asclepius and he could control the water by walking on it like the God Poseidon. Christianity became just another interesting religion I studied.
Eventually, I discovered UUism – Unitarian Universalism – and found a congregation that was a blend of Pagan and Christian beliefs. It was really a perfect fit for me. Now to understand why it is, I need to briefly explain Unitarian Universalism.
There are two sides to Unitarian Universalism. First, we have our seven principles that I think everyone here can agree with. We believe that all people are important; we should work for justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; all people should have a say or a vote; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and we need to take care of our Earth because it is our home.
The other side of that is we draw on many religious sources. UUism comes from a Judeo-Christian background but we can draw on or look for inspiration through religions such as Paganism, Humanism and Buddhism so that is why a person can be a UU Christian or a UU Atheist. They believe in the seven principles and draw heavily on one particular belief system.
I happily floated around in the UU community taking on various roles within the church until I moved to Madison. I found a congregation near my home that unbeknownst to me had a Humanist or Atheist/Agnostic bent to it. I wasn’t there long before I became a teacher and soon after the director of religious education.
Because the congregation I was serving drew heavily on the Humanist/Atheist/Agnostic teachings, God and Jesus were rarely ever mentioned and like not unlike some other UU congregations, the mention of Christianity was usually negative.
You see, for many non-Christians, Christianity’s message – its true message -is lost. Recently, a friend of mine posted a quote on Facebook that was attributed to Pope Francis. She said she agreed with what he said even though she’s not a Christian because “I don’t believe in the teachings of Christianity.”
The message of love, compassion and do unto others, is not the message she’s getting when she hears the word Christianity. Many non-Christians, like my friend, have had very negative experiences in church, some were told to leave, others not accepted for who they are, they’re told, like me not to question the teachings.
UUs have a saying, ours is a religion where your questions are answered and your answers are questioned. Ours is unique, I thought. We accept people no matter their race, beliefs, sexual orientation, family structure, no matter their abilities or inabilities. What other church would say THAT at the beginning of their service?
Imagine my surprise when I first attended a church service here at Memorial UCC!
Despite all that I agreed with in Unitarian Universalism and Paganism, there was a nagging feeling like I needed more than what was begin given to me and each year it got stronger. I needed Jesus and his teachings but I figured I would only get them from a UU congregation that was like my first experience. I needed a UU congregation with a heavy Christian influence.
Problem is there isn’t one in Madison. I tried to read books on my own, would attend the Catholic Church with my family for Christmas Eve and Easter, but it wasn’t enough. I needed a like-minded community.
I would often hear this joke about the UCC. You know what UCC stands for, right? Unitarians considering Christ! I would check on the websites now and then but thought the area UCC churches were just too Christian, too “Jesusy”. They must preach a different Jesus, not the Jesus I had come to know.
In my mind, like many other non-Christians, if you were a Christian you took the Bible literally, every word. Many of you don’t believe in dinosaurs and think all non-Christians are headed to hell. You don’t encourage people to think on their own. They are the people saying we should help the poor and the homeless but in the same breath say God only helps those who help themselves. They are the people protesting marriage equality and think the Earth is a gift that they can do whatever they want to with it. The word hypocrite often came to my mind.
So now here I was judging Christians the way I judged Pagans… and I was wrong. Not all Christians are like that it just seems like it because they’re often the loudest ones.
So I prayed to God and asked Her to find me a Christian congregation where my religious identity and my long spiritual journey could still be welcomed. I prayed for a long time and then I stumbled upon Memorial’s website.
I was looking to see if anyone here was doing the Our Whole Lives program or OWL when I saw a job listing. I read it and was struck that in it you said applicants had to be open to the LGBT community. I thought, well they need to be open to my views too!
Attending worship here, listening to the sermons, talking with members and Pastor Phil, I have finally found the home that I’ve been looking for. A home I didn’t think existed.
When I first walked into the building I saw some of the same signs I saw at my other congregation except you weren’t just advertising them you were helping them. Just Bakery flyers were in the niche to promote the business but also because they come here once a month to sell their baked goods. You are serving AND selling Equal Exchange coffee and you have a very well organized personal essentials pantry.
You really listen to what our reading said today; James 1:22 “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” And verse 27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
I’m reminded of the words of William Ellery Channing, a Unitarian minister: :May your life preach more loudly than your lips.”
Here at Memorial, it does.
Jesus wants us to help those in need, the poor, the hungry and homeless and here at Memorial we work hard to do that by having Just Bakery sell their goods, by serving and buying fair trade coffee that helps small farmers in poor countries, by giving to the essentials pantry, by making it a Council goal to work on the environment and to make ourselves more visible to the LGBT community and by helping abused women and their children by giving to the local domestic abuse shelter or DAIS.
In Matthew, when Jesus was asked what are the greatest commandments he replied:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” We do that here.
When we refuse to turn away someone from the LGBT community we are obeying those laws.
When we refuse to turn away a transgender person we are refusing to give up or baptismal promise to always be there for them and help them learn the way of Jesus and God. We choose to listen to Jesus and not judge others because we know that none are righteous.
When we do the CROP walk in October, donate to so many causes throughout the year, serve food at Luke House we are obeying those laws.
So when I look out at all of you, what do I see?
I see what I believe to be true Christians, true followers of Jesus teaching and practicing Jesus’ message in your daily lives. And not just on Sunday but every day. I see a group of people I wish I knew had existed many years ago. A group of people I’m proud to be a part of. A group of people that more people need to know about.
So I ask of you, do not be afraid to preach your message, Jesus’ message, to others. Let others know that there IS a place for them here in the UCC.
When people say marriage equality goes against their beliefs say, not allowing it goes against MY religious beliefs.
Not taking care of our Earth, our beautiful gift from God goes against my religious beliefs.
Not serving someone food because they are gay goes against my religious beliefs.
It took me a long time to drown out those loud voices of hate to find a Christian denomination that I believe is truly doing the work of Jesus. Help others to find us too. People need to know there is another side of Christianity that isn’t full of judgement.
And don’t be afraid to teach this to your children. It’s not just adults that need to be told there is a forgotten side to Christianity that has been drowned out.
There’s a practice done in many small UU congregations known as a talk-back or discussion period that is done right after the reflection. It’s a time for people to question the speaker or add their own thoughts to what was presented. It can be a very enriching part of the service.
So I’m going to open it up to all of you. But before I do so I would like to remind all of you of our first reading today, James 1 verse 17: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
I don’t think anything I said needs this warning but who knows. What has brought all of you here and why are you a follower of Jesus?