Monday, November 04, 2013

Sermon: "Tribal Unitarian Universalism" (Delivered 11-3-13)

Call to Worship
I’m going to call us to worship this morning with a story about identity.  I hope you find it funny and receive it in the playful spirit in which it is offered.

It’s the story of going to get a flaming chalice tattoo.

I first realized I wanted a flaming chalice tattoo when I was eighteen.  I wasn’t an impulsive teenager though, and I told myself, “It is best to wait.  In a couple of years, if I still want one then I can get one.  What’s the rush?”  A few years later the desire was still strong, even stronger in fact.  I told myself, “It is best to wait.  In a couple of years, if I still want one then I can get one.”

Four years later, the desire remained.  It had only become stronger.  I was thinking about a tattoo when an old Pearl Jam song came on the radio, the one in which Eddie Vedder sings the word “tattoo” in his indecipherable grungy growl.  I looked over and there was a copy of the order of service with a chalice on the cover on my car’s passenger seat.  It was a sign.

It was time.  Order of service in hand, I entered the tattoo parlor and told the tattoo artist, “This is what I want.”

We’re underway when the tattoo artist begins to talk about how the chalice is cool magical symbol of medieval hermetic alchemy.  “No, it’s not,” I wanted to scream, but then I remembered that he was the one with the needle gun.

Ten minutes later I was a marked member of the Unitarian Universalist tribe.

What constitutes a Unitarian Universalist identity?  What makes us distinctive?  Certainly not chalice tattoos, but then what is the giveaway?  What is the tell? 

How do any of us carry our identities?  Are they etched into our skin?  Are they etched into the silent recesses of our hearts, the marrow of our being?

Let us embark on a journey of discovery this morning.  Let us worship together.

This morning’s reading is by Sharon Hwang Colligan, who was raised Unitarian Universalist and was an active leader in UU Youth and Young Adult programming at the national level.  She is the author of an essay entitled, Children of Different Tribe: UU Young AdultDevelopmental Issues.  Her essay is part anthropology, part psychology, and part mystical shamanic vision.  It describes her experience of growing up UU and transitioning into adulthood.  Her piece begins with a list of 35 formative stories that Unitarian Universalist children and youth were never told.  I’ve adapted her list into a free verse poem.

There are formative stories we were never told.

We were never told that God is an old white man in the sky.

We were never told that the world is a battle between good and evil, or that the spirit is higher and better than the flesh.  We were never told that the basic animal nature of man is wrong and we must rise above it.

“You are going to hell.” “You are unworthy.” “God is angry.” “God doesn’t love you.” “God will punish you.”  We were never told these things.

We can’t even imagine what it would mean to fear God.

Those formative stories about sex – Sex is a sin. Masturbation is a sin.  Homosexuality is a sin. – We were never told those stories, either.  And we were never told not to discuss sex, religion, or politics in nice company.

We were never told that people are born sinful.

We were never told that pagan religions, atheism, agnosticism, or other churches are undesirable.

We didn’t learn to think that there is only one right religion. 
Or that Christianity is better than other religions. 
Or that The Bible is better than other good books.

We were never told that obedience is a virtue. 

For us, unquestioning faith is an oxymoron.

Nobody ever told us that UUism isn’t a real religion, or that UUism is a religion for dry rationalists. 

Nobody ever told us that UUism does not offer powerful, ecstatic religious experience, because it did and it does.

And we were not taught that our upbringing was unusual; we were not taught that any of this was different from what other kids learn.

But our Youth know that they are different.  I’m here to say: the reason we feel we are different is because we are different. Our formative experiences — of childhood, of youth, of spiritual transformation — are profoundly different than those of the dominant culture. We are Children of a Different Tribe.

This morning’s message is about identity and culture.  Each of us comes here self-defining, wearing the identities that we claim for ourselves.  We may define ourselves according to our familial relationships.  We are mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother, grandparent, grandchild.  We are husband, wife, spouse, partner.  We call ourselves friend, companion, advocate, and helper.  We claim identities of race, ethnicity, heritage, gender, and sexual orientation.  Our identities can relate to our work, to our role, to our passions and interests.  We may identify with theological labels – theist, atheist, humanist, agnostic, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, pagan, freethinker, mystic – and some of us with more than one theological label.  We call ourselves Unitarian Universalists.

As a religious movement that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we remind ourselves that our identities contain an element of the sacred.  As a religious movement that promotes justice and equity in human relations, we work for a world where no person is excluded or oppressed on the basis of their identities.  When we talk about our identities, we are talking about something significant and personal.  They are precious things, these identities, and we should handle them with care.  As one of the songs of Unitarian Universalist youth and young adult groups puts it, “How could anyone ever tell you that you’re anything less than beautiful?  How could anyone ever tell you that you’re less than whole?  How could anyone fail to notice that your loving is a miracle?  How deeply you’re connected to my soul.”

This morning I’m going to try to talk about something I’m going to refer to as tribal Unitarian Universalism.  It’s an idea that may seem a little strange.  One reason it may seem strange is that we are wary of tribalism as the word is sometimes used.  It is a word that often has negative connotations.  When he ran for Unitarian Universalist Association President, Peter Morales’ stump speech proclaimed,

We live in a new world, a world in which once isolated religious traditions are in constant contact. We desperately need new religion for a new world. The old religions lead to tribalism, violence, suspicion, hatred, and oppression. We need a religion that transcends divisions, religion that unites enemies, religion that points to a new future that includes everyone.

Identities are important to us and identities can be used to divide us.  Frequently, Peter Morales has been known to quote the Latino poet Alberto Blanco, who wrote,

But if I have to belong to some tribe
-- I tell myself --
make it a large tribe,
make it a strong tribe,
one in which nobody is left out,
in which everybody,
for once and for all
has a God-given place.

Kurt Vonnegut, who also was a Unitarian Universalist (well, sort of) came up with a word in his novel Cat’s Cradle to poke fun at the tribal behaviors of human beings.  The word he invented was granfalloon.  Vonnegut defined a granfalloon as a proud and meaningless association of human beings.  A granfalloon is a group of people who share a superficial connection lacking in depth and meaningfulness.

We may associate tribalism with narrowness, closed-mindedness, persistent violence, and fear of difference.  We would prefer to think of ourselves as worldly, cosmopolitan, enlightened, and universalist.  Tribalism seems exclusive and we prefer to think of ourselves as inclusively post-tribal.

Another reason it may be strange to talk about tribal Unitarian Universalism is that we tend to value the ways we are different rather than the ways we are alike.  We think our differences are fascinating; similarities can seem stifling.  We affirm our differences by saying we need not think alike to love alike.  We proudly boast that you can ask a group of ten Unitarian Universalists what they think, and you’re likely to get twelve different opinions.
But Sharon Hwang Colligan writes,

I was always told growing up is that UUs have [next to] nothing in common.  I heard over and over again about how we are so incredibly diverse. There is no way of predicting what you will find from one congregation to the next. Now again, there is a grain of truth to that; but what that idea does is it’s a thought-stopper: it stops us from ever even thinking about what we are like as a people.

So I grew up thinking I could assume I had nothing in common with UUs in other places. Then I went to work at the UUA. They have a weekly chapel service there, a different minister from around the continent every week. I was really surprised, because week after week I saw the same thing: they all sounded like they had grown up in the same family. I mean, the same mannerisms, the same way of making jokes, pretty much the same general attitude and character. I thought, how do they do that?

Over the years I’ve gone around the country and visited lots of congregations. And you know, whether they’re in Rhode Island or Texas, whether they quote the Bible or the Buddha, you go in there, and they all pretty much look and act like Unitarians. It’s really recognizable.”

So, what does it mean to look and act like a Unitarian?  What, exactly, is so recognizable?  What do you think she’s talking about?  Unfortunately, she doesn’t definitively state what is so recognizable.  I’ve been told that culture is like an iceberg.  Ten percent is visible and ninety percent lies hidden beneath the surface.

But let’s ponder this question of what defines a Unitarian Universalist identity.  Maybe it is about holding certain beliefs or certain patterns of thought that go through our minds.  Or, maybe it’s not about beliefs or thoughts at all.  Maybe being a Unitarian Universalist means having a particular set of values.  Or, maybe a Unitarian Universalist identity is about community and commitment.  Maybe it is about participating in a group of people who call themselves UU or pledging your commitment to such a group.

In the late summer I taught an adult religious education class on Unitarian Universalist Identity and I began the class by handing out a checklist of different activities.  I then asked the members of the class which ones they thought were absolutely necessary to be an “official” Unitarian Universalist.  I’m going to read you the list and let you keep track of which you think are necessary in order to be a UU.  You might be a UU if you:

            Signed the membership book of a UU church
            Attend UU worship services and/or religious education classes
            Attend other events and programs in the congregation
Support social justice issues that UUs have historically supported
            Own your own chalice
            Own a copy of the UU hymnal
            Have read “A Chosen Faith”
            Have memorized the “Love is the doctrine…” affirmation
            Have memorized the Seven Principles
            Have memorized “Spirit of Life”
            Have made a pilgrimage to UU historical sites in Boston
            Attend General Assembly or other UU leadership events
            Attend a UU summer camp
            Dressed as a UU historical figure for Halloween
            Own chalice jewelry or a UU T-shirt
            Take the “Building Your Own Theology” class
            Have a chalice tattoo
So, is a UU identity about having certain thoughts or values?  Is it about belonging to community?  Is it more about a certain set of behaviors?  Is it all or some or none of these?

Sharon Hwang Colligan’s fascinating and troubling essay is about one particular aspect of Unitarian Universalist identity.  In Children of a Different Tribe she writes about the powerful and transformational culture of UU religious education and youth programming and about the ways that culture is challenged as UUs move into adulthood.  Colligan is especially interested the tribal identities of birthright Unitarian Universalists, UUs who grew up with a UU identity and with the cultural values that youth programming imparts.

One of the interesting things that Sharon Hwang Colligan points out is that UU culture is disrupted by the fact that most UU children, obviously, have the identity of having grown up UU whereas 90% percent of UU adults were not raised UU.  In our congregation, located in a transient suburb of a metropolitan area that has not historically had a major UU presence, I estimate that only two percent of us grew up UU.  Let me put this issue that Colligan raises as starkly as I can.  Growing up UU provides you with a formative cultural experience that powerfully and permanently shapes your identity.  Ninety percent of UU adults did not grow up UU.

Is anyone feeling excluded here?  Is this a problem?  If so, what should be done about it?  Here is what I’m not proposing.  I’m not proposing that we create a remedial program for adult UU converts and send you through the Coming of Age program and hold adult lock-ins where you stay up late playing sardines and sleep on the floor.  But I’m not proposing that we go to the other extreme either and declare that there is no such thing as cultural Unitarian Universalism, that we are a post-tribal movement, and just sort of accept that UUs are so diverse that they have nothing in common.  That is a thought-stopper.

Here is what I am proposing:  I’m proposing that we build bridges between our divisions and manifest a generous curiosity about each other and about the culture of our faith.  For newer UUs, that might mean listening to the formative stories and experiences of born and bred UUs.  For birthright UUs that might mean taking the time to listen as newer UUs talk about the formative stories that they were told.  For all of us it might mean seeking out ways to be less isolated and more in communion with our larger movement.

Colligan writes that when the children of a different tribe reminisce about their cultural experience of having grown up UU, they talk about being in an environment marked by realness, honesty, friendship, and truth.  I might unpack those just a bit.

Realness is the same thing as authenticity.  It is the ability to be open with others without armor or defenses.  It is the result of having a safe environment, a community that sings the “How can anyone ever tell you, you are anything less than beautiful?” song to each other.

Honesty is an inner commitment to follow the dictates of conscience.  It is made possible only when acceptance is assured.

Friendship is a warm embrace of one another.  It is the embodiment of welcoming and acceptance.

Truth is a method of exploration.  It sees unquestioning faith as an oxymoron.  It holds that revelation is not sealed and that our understanding is always evolving.

Let us be mindful of the culture we are called to create, the faith identities we are called to develop, and the inclusive, large tribe we’re called to become.  Let us seek to understand each other and grow in our understanding of our identities.