As I stated in my sermon last week, the season of Lent is a time that speaks to me. Though I don’t practice it myself, I am always inspired to dig deeper into my own faith as I witness friends walk the forty-day journey. And so I share this story, which takes us a bit deeper into the meaning of Lent than I was able to get on Sunday.
One day, a colleague with two young children was working in her home. Suddenly, my friend was interrupted by the shrieks of her 6-year-old daughter, incredulously trumpeting a particularly egregious transgression committed by her older brother. “He said the ‘A’ word!! He said the ‘A’ word!!!” she cried.
My friend, assuming the worst—that her 8-year-old had learned to swear—prepared to reprimand and punish, since the pastor’s children really ought not cuss like sailors. And then her son arrived on the scene, equally incredulous, ready to defend his own honor.
It turns out that the ‘A’ word he said was not the one we all assumed. The ‘A’ word he had, in fact, said, was “Alleluia.” You see, the week before at an Ash Wednesday service, the children’s time had included a ritual packing-away of the word “Alleluia,” in preparation for the fasting and reflecting time of Lent. The 6-year-old had taken a literal reading of this particular children’s sermon, and elevated the word “Alleluia” to the level of the worst swear she could imagine.
I didn’t understand the purpose of Lent until I went to seminary. That first year I attended a Christian theological school, I watched my friends live—actually live—the forty days of Lent. I had only ever known Lent as a time during which people gave things up, like chocolate, or hitting their brother, and nobody had ever explained to me why they were doing this.
It always seemed kind of strange, and didn’t make much logical sense to me un-churched as I was. And when we did become churchgoers, I did not learn much about Lent in the humanist congregation my family attended.
I participated in an Ash Wednesday service that first year, in which we were encouraged to use the forty days of Lent to repent. Usually we think of repentance as pejorative—when we do something wrong, we must repent of our sin, we feel regret about something we have done, sorrowful or penitent. But in Greek, repentance is most often translated as metanoia, which has a much deeper and more complex meaning.
Meta means after, with, or outside of, and noia means to perceive, think or observe.
Theologically, metanoia is used to refer to a change of mind, a turning, a fundamental shift in consciousness. Further, in the Ash Wednesday service, it was explained that in ancient Greek culture, the soul was thought to reside in the head, rather than in the heart, as we might think today. So, if the soul resides in the mind, and repentance is a change of mind, we can really think of metanoia as a change of heart.
I think of repentance, or metanoia, as a turning. It is the fundamental shift in my consciousness that comes with deep self-reflection, with self-awareness and engagement with my own life’s journey. Lent, a time of repentance, self-denial and fasting, which is meant to bring the Christian penitent closer to God, can be relevant to us as well. We may be humanist, atheist, Christian or non-Christian Unitarian Universalists, but ultimately the practice of observing Lent is meant to bring us closer to the truth that resides in our own hearts.
We pack away the “Alleluias,” not to be morbid or arbitrarily give up a vice, but because taking time to reflect deeply on who we are and what is important in our lives is a good practice. This is not about random self-denial, but about clearing away the things that distract us from our larger purpose, from our deepest thoughts and highest purpose.
Whether or not we are waiting to commemorate the death and resurrection of Christ in a literal sense, the season of winter is not over yet, and as we live in the chill air of a February afternoon, we wait for the time when green buds will appear on trees and the crocus will peek its tender green bloom from a crack in the still-frozen ground.
When Easter comes, when the spring begins, what will you have turned away from? What old habits and sadnesses will you have left behind? How are you preparing the garden of your soul for the growing season ahead?
The 10,000-foot view. It’s what makes an IMAX film of the Grand Canyon more breathtaking than walking it step-by-step, at ground level. It’s what helps us see the forest, and not just individual trees. It is very different from what I like to call the “in the trenches” perspective, where we solve problems, plan for the short-term, and manage the nitty-gritty. In the world of religious education, that’s where professionals spend most of their time. Emails, phone calls, calendaring, room reservations, meetings, permission slips, recruitment, committees, time sheets, staff management, more meetings, more emails, and lots of planning to make sure Sunday morning won’t flop.
It can be easy to keep my focus there – there is certainly plenty to be done, and it never really seems “finished” when I lock up the office at 23 Edwin and leave on Thursday afternoon for my Sabbath. The daily management and oversight of RE is an essential piece of a healthy ministry, and a big reason you have a professional religious educator. But without the 10,000-foot view, which might be called vision, we can get to the end of the event or the curriculum of the year and not have an idea of where to go next.
You trust me to manage the ground-level view. The Lifespan Religious Education program has an excellent committee and dedicated staff, and in collaboration with the UUCA staff team, ministers, and lay leadership, we do a pretty good job with RE.
But the 10,000-foot view? That perspective comes from the picture that develops when the wider faith community and leadership engage in meaningful dialogue on the big questions. Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? What are our shared values and dreams for the essential ministry of faith development? And how can we get there from here?
I hope you’ll join in this important conversation coming up soon. Songwriter Ani Difranco wrote “When I look down, I miss all the good stuff/And when I look up, I just trip over things.” Your vision is needed to help RE leadership navigate toward “the good stuff” you can see from the 10,000-foot view, while we continue to offer a program that runs smoothly on the ground.
Visioning for the Future: Lifespan Religious Education at UUCA
Friday, February 27, 5-8pm: It’s a Potluck History Party!! (Note: Long-time members needed here!) (RE C)
Saturday, February 28, 9am-3pm: On to the Future!! (RE C/S) Lunch provided with RSVP.
Please plan on attending this important opportunity to talk about the ministry of religious education and faith development at UUCA. During this time, we will share our knowledge of the history of religious education at UUCA and look to the future as we envision the program of faith formation we will work to create together. This work is covenantal in nature, and so we are inviting all who have an interest in religious education and faith formation to attend – lay leaders, board members, parents, elders, teachers, and youth are especially invited. Click here for more information.
Friday night, 5-8pm: Childcare will be provided. RSVP here(specify ages please).
Saturday, 9am-3pm: Childcare will be provided. RSVP here for lunch and/or childcare needs (specify ages please).
We hope you can come to one or both of these important events.
My mother Roberta writes memorable thank you letters. She taught me that being thankful meant finding words to express that gratitude. Today, as I return from being with Mom in California during preparation for and recovery from surgery, I am thankful for your messages of care and support: you are living into our covenant. Vice President John Bates and the other Board members moved the Board monitoring and visioning processes forward in my absence as I knew they would; I am grateful for their dedication to this work.
Mom is 91; her statement that she lived alone at home was sometimes questioned as possible evidence of dementia. Most often, however, the staff asked her what her goals were: to return to living in my home. Then together they formulated and explained the steps to get there and the changes that might be necessary. She is spending a couple of hours a day in the gym at the post-acute care hospital doing exercises familiar to any workout: rows, biceps curls, standing arm raises. Her occupational therapist Peter explains each one—both how to perform the move and in what specific way this helps her reach her independence. As your UUCA Board we are listening to discern your goals for our life as a congregation so that together we can name the programs and actions that will lead us to that vision of ourselves.
We belong to UUCA with hopes of feeling connected and deepening relationships. Part of Mom’s identity is her professional one as a dietitian and volunteer of thousands of hours in the hospital library. The dietary staff recognized her knowledge and treated her as a colleague. She in turn asks the staff about themselves. Thus she who believes she can’t meet new people well has in a week’s time made strong, positive connections to a place she never thought she could stand to be. Let’s all seek to know others in our congregation better.
The minister of the church I grew up attending preached last Sunday on faith and fear. He contrasted safety as those things which protect us from harm to security as a sense of freedom from worry about harm. There were lots of safety measures evident in Mom’s medical care: marking the correct leg for surgery, double-checked identity bands, wide belt around her during therapy. But her sense of security came from the kind and caring people.
When we personally or as a society focus on measures to make things safe, devising mechanisms and writing laws to protect us from injury, we do not necessarily feel more secure. Secure, from the Latin “without + care”, conveys a sense of freedom from anxiety, an attachment so we will not be lost. Thought of this way security has more in common with peacefulness than safety. May we then consider the connections of security and faith, how we see the world work?
Let us, as shared by Bruce Larson, think for peace this month:
Let all beings be happy, loved, and peaceful.
Let the whole world experience these things.
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Along with many UUs, for years I struggled over how and even whether to use the word “faith” to describe my religious orientation. And then I had my own awakening concerning just what I think that word points to.
Faith. For most of my life it wasn’t anything that I thought much about. Yes, from an early age I was a pretty regular church attender. I’ve told you about growing up in the Unitarian Church of Princeton, New Jersey, a booming, young church in the 1950s and 60s. I felt safe and welcome there, and even more, young as I was, I felt like I mattered. But, faith wasn’t really a word that was used to describe what bound us together. We might have used words like “share values” or “a sense of community.”
In fact, I think that if you had asked them, many of the people attending that congregation would have told you that “faith” was something that they had come to that church to get away from.
“Faith,” in their eyes, was something that they associated with the churches of their childhoods where catechisms and Bible stories laid out a belief structure that pretty much was beyond question. Good doubters that they were, though, they did ask questions and probed seeming contradictions and at some point by some person were admonished that they simply need to “have faith.” That reply, they would have told you, prompted a cascade of thoughts and feelings, but the net effect was that in time they drifted away from that community, and often from religion entirely.
Still, something tugged at them. Perhaps it came with the birth of children, or a restlessness sitting with the Sunday paper, or the query of a friend, or a particular book, or movie. Somehow the “big” questions of life started pestering them or perhaps that dark night of the soul arrived, and they thought, “Well, maybe there’s something else out there.” And so they made the rounds and ended up eventually at a Unitarian congregation: nice people, interesting services, and no talk about “having faith.”
Perhaps this story is something like your own. If so, you may be feeling a little nervous now: “Oh, no, what are we doing talking about faith?” So, let’s begin by clearing the decks here. In my understanding of faith, I am informed by one of the great liberal theologians of the 20th century: Paul Tillich. In a book published in the 1950s he lamented how use of the word “faith” had been misconstrued.
“Almost all the struggles between faith and knowledge,” he said, “are rooted in the wrong understanding of faith as a type of knowledge which has a low degree of evidence but is supported by religious authority.” We are left with the idea that faith is something that we get from someone else and that we adopt by a kind of act of will. If you don’t have it, you haven’t tried hard enough.
This sets up the traditional conflict of faith and reason. In fact, Tillich said, there is no contradiction between reason and faith, as it rightly understood. Faith, he said, is not about what we know, but how we feel about what we know: not about how our mind engages with the world, but how our heart does.
It is highly personal, something that arises in each individual in response to her or his own experience. It is that felt sense that connects us to the world around us in the deepest way. In Tillich’s words, it is the state of being ultimately concerned.
“Ultimately concerned.” That’s a pretty abstract idea, but it points to an intimate experience. Essentially, faith is what underlies our sense of wellbeing. It is what we hold to because we cannot possibly not hold to it. It is what gets us out of bed in the morning and lets us settle into sleep at night. It is what centers us when our lives have been knocked off kilter.
All of us have our moments of feeling alienated or disconnected. It is the kind of existential despair that makes our lives seem absent of meaning. It does no good at those times to say, “Buddy, you’ve just got to have faith.” What we need instead is a way of connecting with that original sense of wholeness that we were born with. Ultimacy, to my way of thinking, is that intimation, that felt sense that we are bound up in it all – the vast, mysterious beauty of all things – that we are now and ever will be home.
I remember an incident many years ago when I was a senior in high school. I had applied to five liberal arts colleges, all of them competitive, but within my grasp, I was assured. Then the day came when five thin envelopes arrived in the mail, and I learned that I had been rejected by all five.
Neither of my parents was home. All I could think of to do was to launch out to a tree nursery across the street and walk and walk, brooding. For some time in recalling that episode, I told myself that with that walk in the woods I was just getting some air to take my mind off that crushing news. Yes, it did help in that way, and of course I did find a way to college and all the rest. But I realize now that something else was going on out there on those paths of the nursery. I was, in fact, getting in touch with the ground of my faith.
I found something that day that I have come back to time and time again. Amid my despair something in the world called me back to wholeness. It is said that in the fraction of a second before we process our perceptions into discrete elements – sights, sounds, and so on – we are first flooded with an ineffable sense of being alive in the world.
It isn’t something we articulate; it’s pre-verbal. And yet it gives us a grounding, a place to begin. Amid raging emotions and conflicting thoughts, it is a place of peace, a floor from which to build the foundations of a living faith.
I find it at the center of our first principle, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We are, each of us, enough, and we have the capacity to discover how to realize our best selves and live into the promise that we are.
Sharon Salzberg in her book Faith comes to a similar conclusion. Faith, she says, “is not a commodity we either have or don’t have – it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.”
The passage you heard from Annie Dillard comes after she describes watching a full solar eclipse. She writes that she was surprised by how disturbing she found the experience, as if the sun itself were being obliterated. And yet, beneath her fear what she calls the substrate, the matrix that buoys the rest, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.
Some decades ago, James Fowler made a study of what he called “the stages of faith,” that is how faith is born within us and how it grows over the course of our lives. He noted that people commonly identify faith with a code of beliefs, say the credo of the Latin mass or the creeds of Protestant reformers. But, he says, that’s an error. Belief may be a way that faith expresses itself, but a person does not have faith in a proposition or concept.
Instead, he said, “faith involves an alignment of the heart.” Curiously, this notion stretches across cultures. In Hindu, the term is Sraddha, which translates as “to set one’s heart on.” The religious life, they say, begins with finding in one’s life something to which one gives one’s heart.
Credo from Latin has a similar root, a compound from the word for heart and the world for place or put. So, its most accurate translation is not, “I believe,” an intellectual affirmation, but “I set my heart on,” or “I give my heart to.”
The writer Diana Butler Bass argues that people often misunderstand some of the most famous words attributed to Jesus: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
With those words he was not speaking of a philosophical idea or a set of doctrines. The truth, she said, “was that the disposition of the heart was the ground of truth. Spiritual freedom results from a rightly directed heart. The self as it moves away from fear, hatred, isolation, and greed toward love.”
Buddhism offers a similar view. As Sharon Salzberg puts it, “faith is the capacity of the heart that allows us to draw close to the present and find there the underlying thread connection the moment’s experience to the fabric of all life.”
Giving one’s heart, of course, can be a risky proposition. Our hearts are tender and easily broken. And so we have good reason to be wary. At the same time, of course, being made of muscle, they also get stronger the more they are used.
And so here is the conundrum of faith. It is possible to drift through life taking the safe route, trusting in few things, exposing little of ourselves. It offers no assurance of safe passage, but at least we reduce the risk of injury. And yet, what a pallid existence, what a dull life.
The life of faith, though, offers a different path: risky, to be sure, because we can’t know if what we put our trust in will merit that gift. Likely, we’ll overextend ourselves at some point and need to regroup, perhaps nurse our wounds. But we learn, and our heart grows stronger, wiser. And moments will come when our risk pays off with the most glorious awakening, the most amazing meeting of kindred souls, and we are filled as we never thought possible.
Yesterday in our Connection Points class we invited people who are thinking about joining this congregation to reflect in small groups on our worship theme this month: what does it mean to be a person of faith. Some said there was something a little scary in that task. Shaming scripts from their past emerged in their minds, and they weren’t really sure how to reply.
Others helped open the conversation, though, sharing their own experiences and their own sense of deep convictions that kept them centered and grounded. It was a microcosm of one of the key things this congregation exists to do: to listen each other into spiritual growth, to give each other courage to open and explore.
We all know the experience of having been smacked down emotionally, having our hearts wounded and feeling that we need protect ourselves. We shelter ourselves, but, sadly, in sheltering ourselves we turn from our hearts, become stoic, impassive. It’s a place we can live for a surprisingly long time, but not happily.
A way I have seen this present itself in our churches is that we process the work of religion as the wrangling of words. Words are good, but without bringing our hearts into the equation they can be empty. Sometimes you can see the heart pushing to make itself known in the heat of the conversation. How would it be if we let the words be for a moment, and paid attention to the heat? What is that? Can you name it? Can you own it?
May Sarton’s poem that I read for our meditation has been a favorite of mine for some time precisely because it speaks to me of that moment in our lives when the heart makes itself known. It is the moment when we fully know ourselves, when all, as she says, “fuses, falls into place: from wish to action, from word to silence.
“My work, my love, my time, my face gathered into on intense gesture of growing like a plant.”
What does that look like for you, and how might we invite you to explore it? For, there is the vitality of your life. There is where, as Sarton says, all we can give grows in us to become song, made so and rooted so by love.
Let us here affirm, as Sharon Salzberg puts it, that “We all have [the] absolute right to reach out, without holding back, toward what we care about more than anything. Whether we describe the recipient as God, or a profound sense of indestructible love, or the dream of a kinder world, it is in the act of offering our hearts in faith” that something changes within us, something that gives us the courage to act from the center of our lives and fully live our truth.
It is the journey of faith, a journey whose destination is an ever deepening awareness of how entangled we and all things are and how dear we are to each other.
An extremely important UUCA workshop for Congregational Leaders
Friday, February 27 5:00-8:00 pm and Saturday, February 28 9:00 am–3:00 pm
Generally speaking, it’s always good to set a destination before you set off on your journey. Now that our new Director of Lifespan Religious Education has gotten the lay of the land here at UUCA, it’s time to help Joy Berry set the future direction of all the educational programs we provide for adults, youth and children. We urge you to join in on this important opportunity to talk about the ministry of religious education and faith development at UUCA.
The UUA has consultants to help out with these types of workshops and sure enough, our Visioning weekend will be led by Kathy McGowan, a Congregational Life Staff member of the Southern Region. Because lifespan religious education is such a vital piece of a UU congregation—what Rev. William Sinkford, former UUA President and current minister of one of our largest congregations, called the engine of new growth in our churches and what many of us understand to be the place where faith formation most concretely occurs—we need YOU to be in on the conversation. This work is covenantal in nature, and so we are inviting all who have an interest in religious education and faith formation to attend—lay leaders, board members, parents, elders, teachers, and youth are especially invited.
As you know, our Board is working this year to discern again the future of UUCA, so too, this lifespan religious education visioning process needs your voice to help shape the future of UUCA. During this time, we will share our knowledge of the history of RE at UUCA and look to the future as we envision the program of faith formation that we will work together to create. We will consider expectations of the congregation and outline mutual hopes for the future of the program. A Covenant for Excellence in Religious Education invites us to place lifespan religious education and faith development at the center and heart of congregational life.
Here is a rough schedule of what’s planned:
Friday night, 5pm-8pm: It’s a Potluck History Party!!
All are invited to a church-wide potluck in RE Commons. We will start a conversation about “where do we come from;” a bit of the history of lifespan religious education at UUCA. It would be very nice if people who actually had some historical knowledge of our congregation showed up!
Everyone in attendance—congregational leaders (that’s you) and board, RE committee members, RE staff, ministers, youth, members, friends—everyone who is passionate about the ministry of religious education and faith development will gather to set the course for the best, most meaningful faith formation/religious education program UUCA has ever known!