"Liberal theology is not for the faint of heart. It points us in a general direction without telling us the specific destination. It refuses to make our commitments for us but holds us accountable for the commitments we make. The liberal religious tradition is an invitation, not a mandate. It invites us to live with ambiguity without giving in to facile compromise; to engage in dialogue without trying to control the conversation; to be open to change without accepting change too casually; to take commitment seriously but not blindly; and to be engaged in the culture [around us] without succumbing to its values. Liberal religion calls us to strength without rigidity, conviction without ideology, openness without laziness. It asks us to pay attention. It is an eyes-wide-open faith, a faith without certainty." - Paul Rasor, Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century
I have a confession to make. I wouldn't say that it has weighed heavily on me but it has been nagging at my conscience.
As many of you know, we held our water communion just a few weeks ago. For those of you with us for the first time, let me tell you a bit about water communion. This is a tradition in Unitarian Universalism that has grown over the years, especially with the increase presence in our congregations of people who find great meaning in earth-centred traditions like paganism, Wicca, and Native Spirituality. We ask everyone to bring with them some water from their journeys this summer, or to bring water that symbolized something important or some place important in their lives. During the service, every person is able to bring that water forward, share why it is important to them, and pour it into our communal bowl. This is a way of symbolizing that we are taking our individual experiences, the things we have seen, heard and done, even the ways that we may have changed over the summer, and bringing it all back here as a gift to this religious community. It is a concrete way of joining back together and strengthening our bonds to each other.
After we've all had our turn, we bless the water, either through song or word. Now let me clarify what I mean by blessing. We don't necessarily believe in literal blessings, as in putting the blessing of an all powerful God, a God that is separate from us and over us, onto that water. Some of us do not believe in God, and even those that do believe in God are not likely to believe in a God on high. The God or Gods we believe in are mostly Gods of love that live in and through us, not just above us. Theologically, we call that a God of Immanence, rather than a God of Transcendence. So given the different ways we believe, when we bless the water, it's a different blessing. It's not holy water like you would find in a Catholic Church. And yet, it is very sacred in its own special way, because of the meaning we give it.
It was a beautiful service. This sanctuary was absolutely filled with people of all ages, we sang with joy and conviction, and we gathered waters from around the world. It always amazes me how much wisdom and experience, depth and insight, rests in the people who choose to make this place their religious home.
After the service, the bowl was put in my office for me to deal with. Now I don't know yet if you've had a tradition for the water. I've only just arrived as your minister. Some churches use it to water the plants or a special tree. Others simply dump it down the drain. It's meaning ends when the service does. I prefer to boil the water and then keep some in a bottle that I use for child dedications throughout the year. When we touch a child's brow with the water from our communion, it is a way of symbolically placing the blessing of the community, with all its wisdom, experience, and love, onto that child and its precious life. It symbolizes our covenant to walk with that child.
So I took the water into the chapel kitchen, found a pot, and set the water to boil. And then, like I often do, I went to my office just to do a bit of work so I wouldn't waste one minute in idleness because I'm a workaholic who can't stand to do nothing. So there I was, typing away and suddenly I heard a pop, a then a crackle, and then smelled hot metal and I RAN to the kitchen and discovered to my horror that I had boiled away all the communion water!
All those precious summer moments, all your wisdom, all your experience, all your compassion and faith, had boiled down to a layer of char burnt onto the bottom of the pot. What in the world was I going to do?
Well, in my little creative brain, I decided that the sacredness of the water had been condensed to the char at the bottom of the pot. And if sacredness could be condensed, why couldn't it could also be expanded? So I covered the charred remains with fresh water, reboiled it, strained it through a cloth, and the result is this….. (bring out bottle of water) We have our sacred water!
So the purpose of my confession? How could I in good faith dedicate a child with this water and not tell you the story behind it? But there is another purpose, a deeper purpose, to this confession. As I reflected on this experience, I realized that I had learned not only something about myself, but something about this religion that I have made my own.
I learned that I am in fact a bit of a iconoclast. Physical objects do hold sacred meaning for me, and if I had simply set aside the pot and used plain old tap water to dedicate the children, something would have been lost for me. The water that was collected in the ceremony gained power for me because of the meaning this community gave it. Does this mean that I would not respect a minister who simply got new water? Absolutely not. We are a diverse people with many ways of engaging the divine. And I learned something about how I do that, and I share it with you as a way of letting you know a little more about the woman who serves as your minister. I also learned something about the process of being a Unitarian Universalist. This is a religious tradition that does not have many fixed rules and regulations. There was no sacred book for me to turn to help me discern what to do. This is not true of many other religions. In Roman Catholicism, for instance, there are very specific procedures to follow regarding the communion wafers. Those wafers are literally Christ's body. No crumb should spill on the ground. In Hinduism each god or goddess has rituals that surround it, certain foods and drinks, certain prostrations, certain ways to kneel, certain times to visit, certain prayers to recite. In Islam, five prayers divide the day, with specific instructions for purification that precede each one.
NO FORMULAIC CLARITY
We don't have that kind of formulaic clarity. This does not mean that we don't have tradition. We are a 450 year tradition, but we are a creedless religion, without official dogma, who believe that religion should respond in a dynamic way to the reality of our world, not try to hold the world back to fit what we believe. So in our tradition, every generation will find its own way to relate to the truths we hold. And so there was no formula for me to follow either in creating the water communion, or in dealing with a boiled out pot. It was up to me. This is why we say that we are a faith for the free, because really, we are!
But to tell you the truth, at that time, I wished I had something to turn to. Truth be told, sometimes I wish we DID have that kind of clarity. It would make some things much easier. It would make it a lot easier to explain Unitarian Universalism to people who are unfamiliar with it. It would provide more guidance and direction to those who have been Unitarian Universalist for years and still have difficulty explaining what Unitarian Universalism is! There are few simple answers in our faith, and sometimes I look at people in other religions, and am envious of the direction that they have.
Now I don't want to suggest that other religions are easy religions. I completed my ministerial preparation in a Christian seminary, and I learned that to be a Christian involves extensive self-examination, intensive theological reflection and study of Scripture. It's no easy road to be a Christian. The heart of Rabbinical Judaism is study and the following of Jewish Law. To practice Judaism means engaging every aspect of your day with that faith. Buddhism requires rigorous discipline, as does Islam. Each faith makes demands of its followers and each faith is filled with its own paradox. No faith would be complete without this.
So what is the paradox embedded in Unitarian Universalism? What do we ask of those who make this faith their own?
Unitarian Universalism is a faith without certainty. It refuses to make our commitments for us but holds us accountable for the commitments we make. It invites us to live with ambiguity without giving in to superficiality and an anything goes mentality. Unitarian Universalism asks us to accept the reality that nothing is forever, that change is constant, without being too casual about change, or indiscriminately throwing away tradition. Unitarian Universalism emphasizes our individual freedom and then challenges us to be in community with each other, and just let me underscore what a struggle that is, we do not always balance individualism and a commitment to community with grace.
Unitarian Universalism points us in a general direction without telling us the specific destination. This is our paradox. This is what we ask of you.
There's a song in our new hymnal, "Singing the Journey" that really captures the essence of the paradox and promise of this faith. I'm going to sing a little piece for you. Listen to the words:
#1020 "Woyaya" "We are going. Heaven knows where we are going, but we know within. And we will get there, heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will. It will be hard we know, for the road will be muddy and rough. But we'll get there, heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will."
I have to be honest. I would love to know where I am going. And I would love to know how I'm going to get there. I don't want to live with ambiguity, and sometimes I get really tired of change. I often resent that the road is muddy and rough, and somehow I don't think I am alone.
Every religion offers a way to deal with the rough and muddy road. Some offer clear answers, or complicated formulas, or Scripture, or rules for living. And there are people who need that kind of religion, people who find their way on that rough and muddy road through that religion, and I am very happy for them.
This is not one of those religions. Our response to the rough and muddy road is to go straight into the unknown that it takes us to. To accept, sometimes with difficulty, sometimes with relief, that there are no black and white solutions, and yet to confidently stride into the grey and to live our lives with conviction, and courage and honour. To raise our children to deeply appreciate the world around them and to value themselves as unique beings. To make commitments, to ourselves and to others, and to continually forgive ourselves when we get offtrack, and then to try again because as far as we know, this life is our chance. This is what we have. And I don't know about you, but I want to live mine to the fullest. And I want to live my life with others who are willing to walk with me. That is the reason that I sought out religious community, because I don't believe you can live in that ambiguity, and go into the unknown, and travel that rough road, all alone, and live well. So often we deceive ourselves with prideful illusions of self-reliance.
This journey of risk, this life of chance and conviction is what it means to manifest a faith without certainly. This is a faith of risk. A faith that means looking deep within, being intimately engaged with the world around us, with the people we love, with those we don't, and striving to be people of hope, love and faith. It's about personal transformation and growth, and it's also about transforming our communities and world around us so that the healing and transformation and hope that we cultivate within can be our gift to a world that desperately needs our message, to a nation that desperately needs our message.
So, I ask you this, what do you want to do next time you boil the pot dry? I invite you to consider the possibilities, all of them.