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I like to say I found my faith at the birth of one of our children. It was a warm night in August of 1984 and Francis was giving birth to our first biological child, it was a dangerous delivery at home. It had been 18 hours of labor, when our daughter finally emerged she was glowing. I mean that literally, not metaphorically. And I felt a strange and powerful voice in my head. “Now is the time”.
Now is the time for what? I thought. What did that mean “now is the time”? I put the experience out of my life, grateful for now for our daughter and my beloved safe on the other side. I didn’t have language for this then, but what I was having was a religious experience. My first of many. It would take me a lifetime and the call to ministry to discover that the time that voice (angel, god, mind, spirit) meant was the time to change my life and devote it to helping others feel the power of life and all its mysteries. Since then my faith has become deeper and, paradoxically, more mysterious. As an enchanted agnostic I don’t find much use for the word God, but I have a faith in a force shaping my life that seems to provide the best path forward when I let go of whatever anxiety and fears I normally have. I find my courage as a minister letting go and letting the spirit in. This reminds me of an Anglican colleague of mine who was flying from Glasgow to London. There was a lot of turbulence at one point and people were getting nervous. Finally one of the flight attendants remembered that my friend was a Reverend. She steadied herself to his seat and said, “Reverend could do something religious about our situation”. My friend obliged and took up an offering. The path of faith formation is costly but in the way we often think. I had to devote my entire life to this work. I didn’t get much help from my Unitarian upbringing at the time. I hated Sunday school as it was called and when I came of age at the end of the eighth grade, I didn’t deliver any kind of credo. Instead a got a World Bible, incorrect in its title for only the Judeo Christian scriptures were bibles, the rest was the Koran, the Bhava Gita and a few smattering of the Lotus Sutras from the bible. I knew a lot about other religions, little about my own and I couldn’t name my faith if it hit me upside the head.
Fortunately we have come a long way since then. Our religious education and now our Lifespan Faith Development programs have equipped generations of our children into smart and articulate UUs. Programs especially such as our OWL and COA programs have changed the lives of hundreds of our children many of whom are well functioning adults. But it isn’t enough anymore. Busy parents wanting nothing more than to spend time with their children at home and church are finding it harder and harder to simply rely on our curriculum to instill a sense of belonging and faith. So much competes for our kid’s attention and there is so much that puts them at risk, that we all hunger for something deeper, more reliable, less intellectual and more emotionally satisfying.
I find myself wishing the children and adults of this congregation to have their own deep spiritual experiences, their own encounters with faith. Not just a creed or principles we learn but a faith that is ever forming at the edge of our own lives. That is what I mean by faith formation.
Kim Sweeney of whom you will hear more about as this year unfolds says “Congregations are searching for, asking for, and expecting our religious professionals to miraculously retrofit an outdated model of ministry resulting in measurably improved results, without supporting strategic change. What we need is a way of growing spiritually that informs forms, and transforms….
My friends, Mary Collins started a quiet revolution in how we do religious education. She opened our lens to being Lifespan, recognizing that unlike Sunday school, faith is a lifelong edge ever forming. She renamed our program Lifespan Faith Development, to try to encompass how important creating a holistic and multigenerational spiritual community is to growing up and growing old.
I am here today to announce we will take this further. We will become a center for Faith Formation, deeper, more intentional and decidedly multigenerational. This is the work I believe we are called to do.
Faith formation is a ministry to our kids, our parents and all of us and soon I hope we will have a minister of faith formation but in the meantime let me tell you what faith formation is.
- Faith formation is the development of the individual, family and congregation in a deep identity as UUs. As our faith is formed we will grapple with what it means to believe in something ultimate, to practice our faith with integrity, and to find hope in the midst of struggle.
- Faith formation is not didactic; it’s not about what you learn intellectually it’s about what you feel emotionally. It takes us as we are, wounded, broken even ignorant and it holds us up so that we may feel stronger and whole.
- Faith formation celebrates milestones. We do this well here and we will do it better. Our celebration of Ed’s 40 years of ministry was a faithful event. Our celebration of our 70th year will be another. Launching a new vision for a future yet another.
- Faith formation uses wisdom literature as the ground for our learning. Poetry as Frank Hall so ably used, stories from the other religious traditions, the words of prophetic women and men that challenge us and help us grow.
- Faith formation is experiential. You feel, you heal goes the old Blues line. It was why I have us up on our feet in worship, it’s why we clap to certain tunes, and it’s why we march in the streets or sit quietly with the ones we love here while they are dying.
- Faith formation requires us to take it personally. To really think about what it means to live as a UU, with integrity. It requires us to bring spiritual practice into our lives not just on Sunday, yoga, tai chi, prayer, meditation, mindfulness training, and celebratory meals. Holy days. Days of forgiveness like Yom Kippur, days of celebration like our telling of the Christmas Story each year, Days of rebirth in our celebration of Easter and spring. We come here to be renewed. As Lao Tzu said: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” —Lao Tzu
- Faith formation brings it home. Especially with our families. Our goal will be to have our children with us more in worship and then for our families to bring worship home to their children. To grow together as UUs wherever we are.
- Faith formation seeks hope. Hope is what we find when we deeply believe in something greater than ourselves. I believe in the relationships I keep. That is part of my faith formation. I believe in each of you and in us together.
- Faith formation welcomes the stranger. Those who are radically different. Those who are wounded. Those who are lost. If not us who and if not now than when.
- Finally, faith formation serves justice. Now, I know that not all of you like to have justice brought into Sunday. Some of you find it political. So for some, this last element will be less important. But as David Vita and I said last week without justice, our civic circumference there is no real need for the spiritual center.
Is your faith fully formed? I know mine isn’t. I have been stretched by all of you in these last few years; Ed’s 40th celebration, Memorial Services, Worship, the Women’s service, Gun protest when we spoke meaningfully with others who were different from us.
What does it mean to form a faith? When I was a young man, I thought all that mattered was whether people would remember me and I would make a lot of money. Then I made money and wondered if people would remember me. Then I became a minister and people remembered me and I wonder if I will make a difference. I made a difference and then I wondered why I kept thinking all of this was about me. It’s not about me, or even you, it’s about us! Can you hear me?
When it stopped being about me is when I had a breakthrough in faith, when a congregation I was serving, took a program Francis and I to a lesser extent started, a food ministry, and they transformed a community, reaching out to their neighbors, feeding all comes on any Sunday…. This was what faith had formed in me: That it wasn’t about me at all, that it is never really about you, not about what you get out of religion, but what we, no really what the world gets out of our being here. Because at the end of the day, it’s not me, or you or anyone of us who benefits from being faithful but all of us, one community, one congregation. It is about what we do for others. My faith went from being ego centric to being communal centric. I will be long gone, some other minister will fill this pulpit but what will remain, what we have formed faithfully is a community of the faithful who do their best to practice our UUism as best they know how.
And guess what? It pays to broaden your faith into something more than yourself. Stories are legion of people who walked into this place and felt their lives changed, even saved. How many of you felt you had finally found a spiritual home when you entered here? Come on hands up, testify. And then what happens? Well, if we are really serious about faith formation, we find ourselves worrying less and less what you believe and more and more finding meaning in the people you are sharing this congregation with. Am I right here? I could almost stand up here and preach about extra-terrestrial spiritual consciousness and you would say “Well, ok, John that was a little out there for me, but hey, I need to connect with my friends going to read aloud at Beardsley School, so I will see you next week and perhaps you will have regained your senses.” Do you know what I am saying?
I believe real faith formation takes us out of ourselves and centers our souls into one another and our community. It expands our minds to consider other faiths as equally valid as mine. Real faith formation is about growing in new ways in our understanding. Considering what Christianity can teach us about forgiveness, or what Judaism has to teach us about traditions or about the possibility of reincarnation or about how I can make it another day in a job I hate, or a relationship that is deadening or with a child that seems out of control. Real faith formation happens when we consider other wisdoms coupled with being part of a caring community that is certainly far from perfect but sure beats the alternative of loneliness and consumerism. Can you hear me?
Starting next month a small team from our congregation will be participating in a two year course on Forming a Courageous Faith with a dozen other congregations across the country. We will be learning just how we can transform our way of being religious from being just about what we believe to what we do with what we believe. One way we will do that is to enhance our participation in whole congregation worship, knowing and being known by people of all ages and being recognized as a full participant in the life of the congregation.
If I had had this kind of experience we are creating here when I was a teenager, I wouldn’t have wandered for most of young adult life in the wilderness of cynism, drugs and self-absorption. I would have felt grounded and able to keep forming the edge of my life. I would have met the love of my life earlier, perhaps entered the ministry sooner and not battled the demons of self-doubt that led me to the excesses of my youth. It’s what I started for my kids and tried to change for those I have served and now we have the chance, in our second 70 years through service and love to become a faith forming lighthouse.
Will you join me in the ministry of faith formation, a faith ever forming?
As Kim Sweeny said ….. “until we are willing to put our resources towards the pieces of the faith formation system that have the biggest impact, until we are able to admit that “the way we’ve always done it” might very well be engaging on Sunday morning but doesn’t result in transmitting faith, I fear we will continue to watch our rock star religious professionals and clergy leave the work; we will continue to experience 88% of our children and youth leaving our congregations never feeling connected to the faith or returning as adults; and we will fail to mature as a faith that is just so desperately needed.” The world needs us to grow up now. It’s time.