Today we’re celebrating the Association of over 1,000 congregations we call the UUA.
I want to share a portion of my personal journey to the Unitarian Universalist fold. As I tell my own story you may see yourself in it.
But first a metaphor: every year I take our Coming of Age class on a trip to Boston, Lexington and Concord. As part of that trip we visit other UU churches to show our young people the diversity, not only the variety of architecture but the range of approaches to religion.
One of the most interesting places we visit is King’s Chapel in Boston, organized in 1686 when the king still ruled over the colonies. It was the first congregation in America to declare itself Unitarian in theology.
The building still stands on the corner of Tremont and School streets. The first structure was much smaller. When the congregation decided it needed more space and a more solid structure they did an interesting thing – they built the larger structure around the smaller and continued to worship in the small, wooden building until the larger one was ready.
Then they did an interesting thing: they took the smaller wooden structure apart and passed it out the windows, piece by piece.
I love the metaphor.
We Unitarian Universalists are known for our sense of independence, our insistence on individuality and what Emerson called self-reliance.
Most of us feel a sense of attachment to a particular congregation and identify with whom we invest our spiritual lives – a congregation where we get to know people who think about religion pretty much the way we do; respecting the individual’s right to think for him or herself; the search for the truth behind the headlines; the sense of compassion for suffering humanity.
Most of us make that attachment after some time of wondering the desert after crossing the Red Sea, leaving the religion of our childhood behind, and finding the promised land of a religion free from creeds and dogma, where we can agree to disagree, where we are encouraged to be the authentic person we want to be but may have resisted for fear of being criticized for straying from the old path.
We’re here today to celebrate that sense of self-reliance and individuality, to celebrate our religious home here at 10 Lyons Plains Road; but also to be reminded that we’re part of an extended family – 1,000 congregations in the states; and reminded of our roots in Transylvania where the fruits of the Reformation took hold and where we became partnered with our sister church in the little village of Alsoboldogfalva…where Allan Wieman, Jo Shute and Jane Sherman are visiting right now.
Just as we celebrate our sense of individuality as persons, we acknowledge that each of our congregations has its unique characteristics…mostly because it is filled with unique characters!
But there are things we have in common, so we’re encouraged to think ‘beyond the confines’ of this place and these characters sitting with us in this unique sanctuary today.
Many of us have been active members of other congregations.
I’ve talked about my first experience – it was the fall of 1961, a few months after the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America. I didn’t know much about the newly formed UUA, but the minister in the Congregational Church in Wilmington where I’d been an active member and had been the youth advisor during my junior and senior years of college, encouraged me to ‘think about seminary.’
I thought long and hard about it and came to him with a big question: ‘Do I have to believe all those things in the Apostle’s Creed that we recite every Sunday?’
I was afraid of the answer, but not surprised: yes!
When I explained to him that I saw it as metaphor, not as literal, historical truths, he pushed back his chair from behind the desk where he’d been sitting for this important interview, pointed his finger at me and said, ‘You sound like a Unitarian.’ There was no doubt in my mind that this was a rather terrible accusation.
So I went the next Sunday to the Unitarian Church, which happened to be in Winchester, which I had driven by many times over the years.
I remember feeling a bit apprehensive, walking into the church on a Sunday morning, alone. I remember exactly where I sat; I remember the minister, Bob Storer, but most of all I remember so clearly reading the somewhat dated statement of faith on the wall to the right of the pulpit:
“We believe in the Fatherhood of God
The brotherhood of Man,
The leadership of Jesus,
Salvation by character,
And the progress of mankind,
Onward and upward forever.”
I stumbled over the fourth line: salvation by character, then re-read it a few times, and then I sat there in that church and I wept.
I returned to the Winchester Church once or twice after that fate-filled Sunday, never making a real connection to the congregation, but feeling vindicated, feeling like I found a home.
“Home,” Robert Frost said in Death of the Hired Man, ‘is the place where when you have to go there they have to take you in.”
After completing that senior year of college I went on to teach at Wellesley High School for the next seven years, and after our two children were born and started asking questions about religious identity.
By then I’d learned more about the Unitarian Universalists, attending the Arlington Street Church in Boston, where Jack Mendelsohn was minister during the explosive 60’s. I never moved beyond ‘appreciative visitor’ status there, but years later became good friends with Jack Mendelsohn, who preached my installation sermon here 23 years ago this month.
I got involved in the Unitarian Society of Wellesley Hills; taught in the church school – a class for seniors titled ‘Love, Death and Something to Follow.’ I became the junior high youth advisor and then the high school youth advisor and the Senior Minister Bill Rice, who happened to chair the merger commission that married the Unitarians and the Universalists, encouraged me to consider ministry.
Bill died suddenly during my first year of seminary at Boston University – needless to say I was devastated – and the Unitarian gods got together and conspired to put me into one of the Unitarian churches in Lexington; the Follen Community Church, where I served as an assistant to the minister, then Assistant Minister, for 2 ½ of my three years in seminary, moving into the parsonage, continuing the academic requirements at B.U. and learning to be a minister at that church.
I made a very deep connection there; I never thought I would love a church the way I had loved Wellesley.
After graduation from seminary I went to Attleboro, a Universalist congregation that was organized in the 19th century; I was the first minister they called who had not been a Universalist; it was 1972, just eleven years after merger.
At the Murray Universalist Church I had a Winchester-like experience when I went for the first interview and stood in the modern, relatively new sanctuary with its arched ceiling and one end of the sanctuary was all-glass, and I said, out loud, to the member of the search committee who was giving me the tour: ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’
During those years at Wellesley, Lexington and Attleboro I served on the Board of the Mass Bay District and preached in a dozen or congregations to encourage congregations to get involved in District work and the work of our Association.
For several summers I served as director of youth conferences at Ferry Beach in Maine and Rowe Camp in the Berkshires.
While we tend to make our connection with a particular Unitarian Universalist congregation, it’s important to think ‘beyond the confines.’
We’re part of something …
We’re the direct descendents of the early Unitarians, Channing, Parker and Emerson…
We carry on the work of Universalists, John Murray and Olympia Brown, the first woman to be ordained by a recognized denomination…