(This homily was a companion piece to one that Marc Salkin offered this same Sunday on the mission of our congregation)
What is the core purpose of the Foothills Unitarian Church? What is the precise thing that is ours, just ours to do, in this particular time, and this particular place?
To begin to answer these questions, I want to tell you a story. It’s from my first year of seminary, when I interned as a Chaplain at the Denver Women’s Prison.
Every Friday night at the prison, we’d gather for worship. Which, I quickly learned meant gathering around a CD player blasting what a Lutheran pastor friend of mine calls “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” music.
The music would fill the room, and the women would sing along with all their hearts, raising their arms, filled with passion, swaying together, singing Jesus, Jesus…
As for me – well, I stood in the back, my arms firmly crossed, hoping to demonstrate to all who might look my way, this was not my thing. More than just feeling personally uncomfortable, I felt embarrassed for the women, and for all this cheesy superficial theology they had somehow embraced.
And from this distanced and defended place, I watched.
We Unitarian Universalists are a funny people, I think. So often resisting with our brains the experiences our hearts most crave. So often talking ourselves out of the love that stands so close we could almost eat it up if we would just – stop. Let go. Love.
To receive love like that would mean an ongoing willingness for vulnerability, an ongoing journey of transformation, being broken open and changed, born and reborn again.
On the surface, you might think this kind of path would come easily to us.
We love to talk about change, afterall. At least, we do, when it has to do with something out there, something we can theoretically direct and control and analyze….but let’s be honest, when it comes to our personal lives, well as Marc said it – “we like ourselves the way we are.”
We cross our arms and stand back, hoping to avoid that deep discomfort that comes when you’re facing something that just might just change your life. We create communities where difference is masked and discomfort is minimized. We create lives that reassure us – if something needs changing, it’s “out there,” not “in here,” in this messy-uncontrollable-mess of the human heart.
Afterall, it’s dangerous business, this opening our hearts, this imagining who we might need to become to love all the world and be loved too. My stance in the back of the worship space was like my own little force field that had me thinking much about systems of oppression, economic injustice, generational poverty, etc. etc., and therefore protecting me from any deeper engagement with the life in the room.
But then, between each Friday worship service, the women would come and talk with me –
And I started to get to know them, arms unfolded. I heard their stories – of greater loss than I could even fathom, more struggle than you’d think a single person could survive.
Then, Friday night would come again, and they’d sing. And they’d cry, and laugh together, and release from their bodies just a little of the stories I knew lived there.
One Friday night, I was standing there, and this song was playing, “Change my heart O God. Make it ever true. Change my heart O God, may I be like you.”
Suddenly it just hit me. I mean it hit me who should really be embarrassed in the room – and in case it’s not clear, it wasn’t the women singing and swaying.
In that moment, it hit me, the words, they didn’t matter. The theology – Jesus-as-my-boyfriend and humanized Father-God centered as it was – didn’t matter.
Because the room was filled with life, and there was just one person in the room who had failed to experience that life, embodied there in the fellowship of women singing about the possibility of healing and goodness and forgiveness and transformation.
And so, I started singing. “Change my heart O God.” I stepped in closer, and I started singing louder. “Make it ever true.”
OK yes, I was still totally uncomfortable, but I was leaning into my discomfort, learning from it, letting it just be.
Actually, it wasn’t just uncomfortable, it was terrifying. To let down my defenses like that, to invite these words into my mouth without clarifying what I really did or did not believe, to sing with full voice about Jesus, and how I believe in him and his love for me, how it saves me.
It was terrifying to give into the experience, knowing I too had experienced pain, and shame, beyond what I was willing or able to name. It was terrifying to just be present, in the midst of all that discomfort, in the midst of all that love.
I was changed in that worship service.
After that night, I know, I could receive more people, more fully, be with more people more fully, love the world more fully, and receive love more fully.
When we speak about the core purpose of our congregations today, I always think of this story. We have for a long time, as Unitarians, emphasized our need to grow our minds. But when I really dig down into what our core purpose is today, where I always land, is on our hearts.
The core purpose of Unitarian Universalism today, is to grow our hearts. What the world needs from us, in this time and place, is a greater capacity to love people more fully, to receive love more fully.
We come as seekers of knowledge and truth and beauty, and we come to forge connections. And we do all this in service of our core purpose – of growing our hearts. Healing our hearts of whatever obstacles we have within ourselves to receiving one another, transforming whatever pain we carry with us, whatever grief or anger or frustration with the world and our lives as they used to be, or as they are, or as they will never be. Our core purpose as Unitarian Universalists – as religious people? – is to grow our hearts.
And then, our purpose to allow this internal growth to propel us into action in the world. To move us to share the love and to let our healing become the world’s healing, to keep on sharing the love, to find it impossible to keep this love to ourselves – because our hearts overflow with kindness, and compassion and gratitude and so we must pass it on.