Not long before he died, William Sloan Coffin, the great preacher of Riverside Church, asked a beautiful question: “Who tells you who you are?” - which is another way of asking what covenants you’re bound by, who harbors you and whom you harbor. He said some people rely on money to tell them who they are, and it’s a desperate standard. Some rely on status or power or position, and some need enemies to tell them who they are. (“Whatever I am, I am not that” – a small and cynical defining.) Too many of us, too often, he said, allow our own mistakes to tell us who we are. We look through the murky lens of shame or regret at our own shabby jumble of stumbles and sins and define ourselves by these alone. No other measure will convince us. There is grandiosity in such delusion. Who tells you who you are? He responded by quoting the prophet Isaiah: “I have called you by name. You are mine, saith the Lord.” For him, a Christian preacher, this meant, “For one thing, you never have to prove yourself. God’s love is poured out universally on everyone, from the Pope to the loneliest wino on the planet; God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates it. Our inherent value is a gift, not an achievement. So you never have to prove yourself, with money or power or perfection. You only need express yourself, and abundantly return the love you’ve been given so abundantly.”
Douglas Steere, a Quaker teacher, says that the ancient question, “Who am I?” inevitably leads to a deeper one, “Whose am I?” – because there is no identity outside of relationship. You can’t be a person by yourself. To ask “Whose am I?” is to extend the question far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder, Who needs you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable? To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices? With whose life, whose lives, is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?
Unitarian Universalism saved my life.
Unitarian Universalism saved my life, and that statement is only partially true. "-isms" don’t really have the power to save lives. So, allow me to clarify. My peers and friends, who were Unitarian Universalists, saved my life. My ministers, who would later become my colleagues and friends and peers, saved my life. The church saved my life. And, I don’t just mean the people who were there. And, I don’t just mean the programs. I mean the institution that was there: dependable, present, solid, a visible entity signifying a set of enduring values, offering reassurance by the sheer fact of its existence. I’m talking about sanctuary, not just a fancy theological term for the room where people gather to worship, but the feeling of security and protection that the place emanates. As the hymn goes, “By peace made strong, the rafters will withstand the battering of the storm. This hearth, though all the world grow chill, will keep you warm.”
My peers saved my life. My ministers saved my life. My colleagues saved my life. My church saved my life. And, yes, an “-ism”—Unitarian Universalism—also saved my life. The writings of Forest Church, John Buehrens, and Jack Mendelsohn that taught me about the saving, life-giving, message of liberal religion. The brilliance of Emerson. The defiant honesty of Michael Servetus and Theodore Parker. The selflessness of James Reeb: This movement of interconnected lives and deeds that beckoned—this “-ism”—saved my life too.
When I say that it saved my life, what do I mean, exactly? I do mean at least two different things. I do mean life as opposed to death. And, I do mean living as opposed to something that is less than truly living. I mean what Thoreau meant when he wrote, “I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived. I do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear.”
Let’s take the literal first. When I say that Unitarian Universalism saved my life I mean that when I truly got involved, when I got involved in a way that was more than passively going to Sunday school, more than just showing up, I came carrying a lot of ugly emotions. I came with a lot of anger. I came with a lot of anger about injustices large and small. I came with a lot of anger towards those with whom I was in school: anger about the social dynamics of middle school and high school, anger about how those social dynamics depended upon a draconian system for determining social status, the elevation of some through the cold and cruel exclusion of others. I came with low self-esteem, a sense of my own inherent unworthiness. I came with feelings of existential loneliness, a suspicion that I was fundamentally unlovable. I came filled with seething hatred; hatred directed inwardly and outwardly, at all those who I deemed guilty of or complicit in creating the type of environment that brought me such pain and made me feel so very, very sad for myself.
Had it not been for the church I don’t know where all these feelings would have led me, and I do not want to know. All sorts of sad and horrible and tragic things happen to teenage boys who feel this way. I just know that Unitarian Universalism saved my life. Possibly literally.
Definitely metaphorically. Slowly and painstakingly I was pieced back together. I grew to trust others and myself. I learned to receive love and compassion and care and I learned to give love and care. My self-esteem sky-rocketed. I went from feeling inherently ugly to believing, to knowing at the core of my being, that I was a person with inherent worth and inherent dignity.
I’ve seen the lives changed. I’ve seen the lives saved.
Sophia Lyon Fahs famously said that “some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.” I’ve seen rigid people loosen up and begin to let a little love and laughter in. Fahs said that “some beliefs weaken a person’s self-hood. They blight the growth of resourcefulness.” I’ve seen weakened people develop a healthy self-esteem. I’ve seen wilted people revive and bloom. Fahs said that some beliefs are like shadows that cloud our days with fear, that some beliefs are divisive, separating people. And, I have seen people grow from fear to faith and courage and resilience. I’ve seen people break bread and build friendships with the people they had been taught to hate or avoid or reject.
When John Buehrens served our congregations in the South he said that he sometimes felt like he was operating less a church and more a decompression chamber for people with the Baptist bends. At Unitarian Universalist congregations I’ve seen people break away from beliefs that cause them to live in judgment of their neighbors and the feeling of contempt for themselves. I’ve seen people grow from eagle-eyed malice and form intimate bonds with the types of people they had been taught to reject. I’ve seen our congregations serve as safe places for gay and lesbian teenagers when there are simply no other safe spaces. I’ve seen our congregations serve as safe communities for gay and lesbian adults when there are so few safe places, and even fewer spiritually safe places.
Ten days ago I was in Denver as a participant in a growth consultation being put on by the Unitarian Universalist Association. We were asked to do a very negative brainstorming exercise. We were asked to name what would kill our faith. One of my colleagues was the first to speak up. He said, “We did not believe we had a message that saves lives.”
“We did not believe we had a message that saves lives.”
Two years ago, I got to hear The Reverend Victoria Safford preach an amazing sermon. It was about courage. It was about calling. It was about the borders and barriers, real and metaphorical, that our faith calls us to cross. She asked us, “Who is it that tells you who you are?”
I turn the question to you, beloved congregation, “Who tells you who you are?” Who tells you who you are with a message that is a lie, with a message that is not true? And, who speaks the truth, the pure and honest truth, about who you truly are?
Reverend Safford continued with an extremely interesting paragraph. She said,
Douglas Steere, a Quaker teacher, says that the ancient question, “Who am I?” inevitably leads to a deeper one, “Whose am I?” – because there is no identity outside of relationship. You can’t be a person by yourself. To ask “Whose am I?” is to extend the question far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder, Who needs you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable? To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices? With whose life, whose lives, is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?This paragraph struck a chord with some of my ministerial colleagues. If fact, over the next year, every single Unitarian Universalist minister is going to be asked to participate in a structured theological dialogue around this question: Whose are we?
So, this morning I am jumping the gun a little bit. My plan is to offer an answer to this question this morning and then go through the process of theological reflection and then preach a sermon with the same title next year to see how my thinking has changed.
So, whose am I? And, whose are we? Before I go on, I might recognize that there are probably at least a few of you who chafe at this question a little bit. That is the reason I had us sing the hymn “We Are Not Our Own” just before the sermon. That hymn gears us up for asking this “whose are we?” question. The first verse states, “We are our own. Earth forms us, human leaves on nature’s growing vine, fruit of many generations, seeds of life divine.” The second verse declares our interconnectedness with the entire human family. The third verse declares our interconnectedness with all of nature and exhorts us to care for all things living. And then the final verse names an aspiration. We aspire to be a house of welcome, outwardly focused and other centered.
It was perhaps Rabbi Hillel who expressed this sentiment the best when he wrote, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me. If I am only for myself, then what am I? If not now, when?”
Victoria Safford asks a series of questions: Who needs you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable? To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices? With whose life, whose lives, is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?
These questions seem to touch upon both the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of religious life. It is common to speak of religion as having a vertical and a horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension, it is said, has to do with our relationship to that which is eternal and transcendent, what Rudolph Otto called “numinous.” The horizontal dimension, it is said, has to do with our human relationships and our relationship with the world. But, I think it is overly simplistic to say the vertical dimension of our religious experience is the worship service and the horizontal dimension is the coffee hour, that the vertical dimension is our experience of spiritual practice while the horizontal dimension is serving on a committee, doing social justice work, attending a social function, or coming to the congregational meeting. The impact of humanism on Unitarian Universalism does not have to mean the squashing of the vertical dimension; it can mean the re-enchantment and the making sacred of the vertical dimension. Just as Carl Sagan described the universe using a language of reverence and of the numinous, so too is it possible for us to name as sacred—as sacred—our relationships, our justice work, and the interpersonal deepening that happens in community.
The question “Whose am I?” is not a question that deserves a legalistic answer. Some have joked that being the minister must feel like having approximately 300 bosses. Which is, actually, not at all what it feels like. There is a bit of wisdom that gets passed down from generation to generation that says that the moment a minister begins to care about keeping his or her job is the moment the ministry is compromised and less than what the congregation deserves. A friend of mine in town jokes that I have one great big boss. He is talking about God. I joke back, “Yeah, but the instructions are unclear and subject to a good deal of interpretation.” I joke when I know that there is a way to answer this question with utmost clarity.
Whose are we? Whose am I? I would say that I am fundamentally about and I would hope that we are fundamentally about the work of saving lives, of transforming lives. It has happened to me. I’ve seen it happen again and again.
Whose am I? I do not belong to life as it is but rather I belong to life as it might become. Whose are we? My tentative answer, before I go through this process of spiritual reflection in the coming year, is to say that our deepest allegiance ought to belong to all of those who are closed off from their truest selves, shuttered from the possibilities of their own becoming. We belong to those whose vision is still too small and too limited. We belong to those who doubt the salvific and transformational potential of this church, of this faith, and of themselves.
Let us answer and keep answering and keep answering to that voice that asks us to do what seems impossible, trusting and faithful that a way will be made.